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China Invites Cambodian FM After Kerry Visit

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Cambodian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong at the outset of a bilateral meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 26, 2016. (Neou Vannarin/VOA Khmer)

Just one week after the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has flown to China.

Hor Namhong will meet with senior Chinese officials, including state adviser Yang Jiechi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, to discuss a broad strategic partnership in official talks February 3-5.

Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, said the visit to China is likely meant to balance the visit by Kerry, and will be a chance for Hor Namhong to discuss Cambodia’s stance toward China’s position. It also comes ahead of a visit by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to the U.S. this month, where he will join other Asean ministers in talks with President Barack Obama.

“So what does this mean?” Ou Virak said. “It means that Cambodia must go to China in order to lure China and say that Cambodia will remain close to China, as always.”

China aims to use Cambodia as a wedge within ASEAN, where four member nations have claims that overlap China's in the South China Sea, Ou Virak said. China will likely also dissuade Cambodia from joining the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an attempt to rebalance the U.S. in the region, he said. “China is not happy with the TPP. China perhaps won’t let Cambodia enter this trade pact.”

Stronger US/Cambodia ties

During his visit last week, Kerry said the U.S. wants a better trade relationship with Cambodia, without limiting its other trading partners. He met with Hor Namhong and Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Pou Sovachana, deputy executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said China is likely concerned about stronger ties with the U.S., prompting the invitation for talks with Hor Namhong.

“John Kerry also said that Cambodia must think about its own interests, meaning that we can’t put all eggs in the basket of China,” he said. “He wants us to open. That’s why John Kerry’s presence in Cambodia concerned China.”

However, Pou Sovachana recommended that Cambodia assist Asean in a joint stance to resolve the South China Sea issue, as both Vietnam and the Philippines push hard for a resolution, and amid growing tensions in the sea. Cambodia could help find a resolution through the mechanisms of Asean, he said.

Chum Sounry, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Hor Namhong’s visit to China was planned in advance and was not a reaction to Kerry’s visit.

This article was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.