PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet headed to Beijing on Thursday on his first official trip abroad since taking office last month in a demonstration of his country’s warm relations with China, its closest political and economic ally.
He is expected to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other officials on the three-day trip, according to Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry. The statement said the two countries’ leaders will discuss tightening relations for a shared future with the building of a “Cambodia-China Community,” strategic directions for their bilateral relations and regional and international matters.
Cambodia is a key Chinese diplomatic partner and supporter in regional and international forums. It helps dampen criticism of Beijing within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, several of whose members are engaged in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
China has gained important influence in Cambodian politics and its economy, as seen in the numerous Chinese-funded projects, hotels and casinos in the capital Phnom Penh and elsewhere around the country. China’s state banks have financed airports, roads and other infrastructure built with Chinese loans. More than 40% of Cambodia’s $10 billion in foreign debt is owed to China.
Cambodia’s close relations with Beijing were cultivated by Hun Manet’s father, Hun Sen, who stepped down last month as prime minister after almost four decades. His Cambodia People’s Party has had a stranglehold on power, fostered by Hun Sen’s autocratic rule and adroit political maneuvers that crippled any effective opposition.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had visited Cambodia to reaffirm his country’s commitment to its ally shortly after Hun Sen announced his retirement plan.
Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s eldest son, had been army commander before succeeding his father. He was educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but is widely expected to maintain arms-length relations with Washington.
The U.S. has shown disapproval of Hun Sen’s undemocratic moves and is also uneasy over the expansion of a Gulf of Thailand naval port Cambodia and China started last year. Hun Sen consistently denied that Cambodia had granted China the right to set up its own military base at Ream Naval Base.