PHNOM PENH—Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in the Cambodian capital on Friday on a state visit to bolster ties between the already close nations, just days before Phnom Penh hosts a key regional summit.
Hu’s four-day trip comes as Beijing’s shadow looms large over next week’s gathering of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), where the thorny issue of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is likely to resurface.
The first visit by a Chinese head of state to Cambodia in 12 years is timed to showcase Beijing’s close relationship with the current Asean chair, observers say, and perhaps encourage his hosts to keep the maritime row off the summit agenda.
“He’s here to remind Cambodia he’s a good friend,” a Western diplomat who did not wish to be named told Agence France-Presse, likening the eye-catching timing of the stay to “marking one’s territory”.
China and Taiwan claim all of the West Philippine Sea, while four Asean countries — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — have overlapping claims to parts of it.
The region is a conduit for more than one-third of the world’s seaborne trade and half its traffic in oil and gas, and major petroleum deposits are believed to lie below the seabed.
Beijing opposes internationalizing the conflict and prefers to negotiate with its weaker regional neighbors individually rather than collectively, and Phnom Penh is unlikely to challenge that stance during its Asean chairmanship.
“Cambodia does not want to use Asean to square up against another country,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP.
China is Cambodia’s largest bilateral creditor as well as its biggest foreign investor, with hundreds of Chinese companies pumping billions of dollars into the impoverished nation in recent years, including in key infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams and coal power plants.
Hu, fresh from attending a nuclear security summit in Seoul and a gathering of emerging economies in New Delhi, is expected to sign a raft of cooperation agreements with Cambodia before leaving on April 2, a day before the Asean summit opens.