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Prime Minister Hun Sen has assured Chinese Premier Li Qiang that Cambodia will continue its close relationship with Beijing after control of the government is handed over to Hun Sen’s eldest son next month.

“Please, Your Excellency, be assured that the new government’s policy toward China based on [our] mutual traditional friendship, trust and win-win cooperation will not be changed,” the prime minister wrote in a letter dated Wednesday.

Hun Sen announced his resignation after close to 40 years in power, saying at a news conference on Wednesday that a new Hun Manet-led government would be formed on Aug. 22, after the National Election Committee officially reports the results from last Sunday’s election. 

Preliminary results show Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party winning 120 of 125 seats in the National Assembly. The election included the 45-year-old Hun Manet as a first-time candidate for parliament from Phnom Penh.

The tightly controlled vote was condemned by the United States, France, Australia and others as neither free nor fair because of the exclusion of the main opposition Candlelight Party, as well as for efforts to neutralize the political opposition through threats, arrests and other means. 

This combination photo shows the extent of work that’s been done at Ream Naval Base in Cambodia between Aug. 18, 2021 [top] and July 13, 2023. The United States believes the base is intended for Chinese military use. Credit: AFP/Blacksky Technology Inc.

For China, close ties with Cambodia ensure that Beijing has a supporter in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Time and again, Cambodia has undermined ASEAN unity on the disputed South China Sea over which Beijing has made sweeping claims of sovereignty, angering competing claimants.

Power projection

China and Cambodia began developing the Ream Naval Base, in Sihanoukville province on the Gulf of Thailand, with Beijing’s funding in June 2021. Cambodian officials said this week that renovation work has almost been completed, according to Voice of America.

The base would help Beijing boost its power projection in Southeast Asia and the Taiwan Strait. It would be China’s first naval staging facility in the region and the second in the world after a base in Djibouti.

Phnom Penh has repeatedly denied that China is being given exclusive military access to the base, saying that would contradict Cambodia’s constitution. 

Hun Manet’s government will need Chinese support to maintain power, while Vietnam may be reluctant to have close relations, even with its historical ties to the CPP, for fear of indirect economic sanctions from the United States, Finland-based political analyst Kim Sok told Radio Free Asia.

“China needs the Hun family government to achieve its long-term interests – the completion of the Chinese-related Ream Naval Base,” he said. 

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen [left] links arms with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi as they walk after a meeting in Phnom Penh, Aug. 3, 2022. Credit: Kok KY/Cambodia’s Government Cabinet

In February, Hun Sen flew to Beijing for an official visit with Hun Manet and another son, 40-year-old lawmaker Hun Many.

The prime minister met with President Xi Jinping and then-Premier Li Keqiang and signed 12 agreements with the Chinese government, including the building of schools in Kratie province, a US$44 million grant for the removal of unexploded ordnance and the construction of a reservoir in Kampong Thom province.

A report by the Ministry of Economy showed that China held more than US$4 billion of Cambodia’s nearly US$10 billion in foreign debt at the end of 2022’s second quarter.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Edited by Matt Reed.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By RFA Khmer.


[1] Cambodian Ream Naval Base Modernized by China Nears Completion: Defense Ministry ➤[2] Speedy expansion of Ream naval base includes pier that can accommodate warships — Radio Free Asia ➤[3] Cambodia and China shore up ties with new agreements — Radio Free Asia ➤