PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - China’s Ambassador in Phnom Penh says the European Union should not mix politics with trade as it mulls withdrawing Cambodia’s vital preferential single market access in response to the country’s autocratic backslide.
The European Union has just wrapped up a fact-finding mission to Cambodia to determine if Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences should be withdrawn in light of actions such as the dissolution of the only viable alternative party at this month’s national election.
After delivering a public lecture about China’s Belt and Road initiative to students Tuesday at the University of Cambodia, Ambassador Xiong Bo repeatedly stressed free trade should not be impacted by political preconditions in response to a question about the EBA.
“So I think in terms of the trade relations between the EU and Cambodia I think these trade relations should be conducted according to the economic and trade rules but should not be changed according to any political reasons,” he said, speaking through a translator.
“No matter what the EU will do the Chinese will stand firmly in expanding and deepening our cooperation with Cambodia in all fields, especially in terms of trade and economic relations,” he said.
China has pumped billions of dollars into Cambodia through investment, concessional loans and aid in recent years, dramatically undermining the influence of Western powers in the country.
Xiong said the European Union has declared itself a staunch supporter of global free trade, sentiments he hoped the bloc would stick to, adding he did not believe all member states would support moves to withdraw the EBA.
Any decision to withdraw EBA status from Cambodia would require consensus among EU members.
The EBA grants developing countries such as Cambodia quota free and duty free access to the EU market.
This access is conditional on compliance with certain international human rights standards and countries have been sanctioned before for failing to meet those.
The European Union is Cambodia’s biggest market, absorbing about half of the country’s exports.
Monday, EU Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar said a European Commission fact finding mission examining human rights and labor rights in the context of the EBA had concluded and would now report to EU decision makers.
Last week, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said withdrawing the EBA was a “last resort if all our other efforts have failed” to address the bloc’s concerns.
Chief among those concerns are the jailing of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha in September and the dissolution of his party in November.
In both cases the actions were predicated on their alleged involvement in an internationally backed conspiracy to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for 33 years.
Rights groups and foreign governments including the European Union have slammed the moves as a transparent ploy by Hun Sen to crush his only viable opponents before the country’s July 29 election. The United States has already sanctioned the commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, for carrying out “serious acts of human rights abuse against the people of Cambodia.”
Cambodia's government says they are meddling in its internal affairs.
Cambodian government nervous
In June, Hun Sen dispatched one of his top advisors, Sok Siphana, to Brussels to lobby the European Union against removing the EBA.
A Cambodian statement at the time said, “Sadly and quite unfairly, in a very large number of cases, the Government felt like the victim of unfounded accusations and excessive generalizations." It concluded, “There is a conspiracy and a treasonous act of collusion with a foreign power to do a regime change through undemocratic means. How could it be otherwise?”
Sok Siphana, a prominent lawyer and economic advisor who led Cambodia’s negotiations into the World Trade Organization in 2003, has not responded to VOA inquiries about the lobbying effort.
Political Analyst Meas Ny said he did not believe Sok had been successful in his mission.
“The recent mission sent by the Cambodian government it was hard for the head of the delegation to convince the EU community because I think the EU so far have got their information from all sources,” he said.
He said it is clear the Cambodian government is not going to change its stance due to the threat of EBA withdrawal.
“But I think we can talk up a lot of issues that the government might be facing in the future if the EBA is lifted,” he said.
Chief among those, Meas said, was the knock on effect to Cambodia’s micro-finance sector from the resulting unemployment among Cambodia’s 700,000 garment workers, many of whom are heavily indebted.
Late last year, Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak warned in a leaked letter if the EBA were withdrawn Cambodia would have to pay $676 million for an estimated $6.2 billion in revenue from exports to the European Union.