“Hun Sen’s China Visit: Love in the Time of Coronavirus” by Lye Liang Fook

2020/14, 10 February 2020

At a time when China is preoccupied with tackling the coronavirus and grappling with criticisms for its tardy initial response to contain the spread, it appears to have received a shot in the arm with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Beijing on February 5. Hun Sen’s visit did not make any material difference to the resources available to China to fight the coronavirus. Neither does it affect Beijing’s determination to overcome this latest crisis. The main value of Hun Sen’s visit lies in the symbolic expression of support. Beijing has also been quick in zeroing in on two key aspects: the message that China seeks to convey, and the implications for China-Cambodia relations.
In terms of the messaging, Beijing has ramped up its narrative to show that leaders around the world, including regional leaders, positively evaluate and support China’s fight against the outbreak. With particular reference to Southeast Asia, two recent articles in the People’s Daily of 31 January and 5 February specifically mentioned that Myanmar President U Win Myint (whom Chinese President Xi Jinping just met on his state visit to Myanmar last month), Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen have expressed confidence in China’s ability to fight the coronavirus. Of the four Southeast Asian leaders, only Hun Sen is mentioned twice, once each in the two People’s Daily articles.

Similarly, in his meeting with Hun Sen in Beijing, Chinese President Xi reiterated that China has the confidence and capability to win the fight against the coronavirus. Xi added that China will continue to maintain an ‘open and transparent attitude’ to enhance cooperation with all countries, including Cambodia, to not only fight the disease but also “maintain global and regional health security”. Apart from his Beijing visit, Hun Sen had attempted another vote of confidence in China with his earlier stated desire to visit Cambodian students in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus. However. this was politely declined by his Chinese host, who cited Wuhan’s preoccupation with fighting the outbreak and the prime minister’s tight schedule.

From Beijing’s perspective, Hun Sen’s visit, the first by a foreign leader to China since the onset of the coronavirus, was already a solid vote of confidence without him going to Wuhan. A visit to Wuhan would have been a difficult proposition, given the distinct possibility that a foreign dignitary and his entourage could be infected. If this had happened, it would have been a public relations disaster. More importantly, China wants to manage the messaging for its domestic audience – that is, Beijing is in control of the situation and that this is a matter best left to the authorities to handle. So far, the most senior Chinese leader to have travelled to Wuhan is Premier Li Keqiang and before that Vice Premier Sun Chunlan. President Xi Jinping has yet to visit Wuhan and there are public expectations for him to do so. In this sense, arranging for a foreign leader to visit Wuhan would have complicated China’s domestic messaging efforts.
At the bilateral level, China and Cambodia have reaffirmed the strength of their ties with Hun Sen’s visit. Although this was only a one-day working-level visit, China accorded high importance to it by arranging for Hun Sen to meet President Xi in addition to a routine meeting with Premier Li. Hun Sen was received upon his arrival at Beijing International Airport by State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Reporting on Hun Sen’s visit, China’s national media stressed that Cambodia is a true friend of China, particularly at a time when China is going through adversity (huannan jian zhenqing). At a time when many countries have instituted bans on Chinese citizens entering their countries, Cambodia has, like Pakistan (another Chinese strategic partner), refused to evacuate its citizens from China. The Cambodian leader was reported as saying that the only thing more fearful than the epidemic itself was panic.

Hun Sen’s visit is the latest in a series of high-level political visits between the two countries. For instance, Hun Sen had embarked on an official visit to China in January 2019. Thereafter, he met President Xi at the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April 2019. More recently, Hun Sen further met Premier Li at the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok in November 2019. At the same time, Cambodia is a staunch supporter of Chinese initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation.

Interestingly, President Xi mentioned during his recent meeting with Hun Sen in Beijing that Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni and the Queen Mother Norodom Monineth had expressed sympathy and support towards China over the outbreak of the coronavirus. In China’s view, this gesture of royal support, together with Hun Sen’s visit, demonstrated the ‘unshakable friendship’ of the two countries. It also serves as a reminder that China-Cambodian ties extends beyond the government-to-government realm to include the strong relationship that China has with Cambodia’s royalty.

Mr Lye Liang Fook is Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.