PHNOM PENH — Cambodia, one of the least developed parts of Southeast Asia, extends a welcoming hand to economic aid from Japan and China, but analysts in the country are wary of the competitive intent of the nation’s two largest aid donors.
Officially, the government hails both countries as champions of Cambodia’s rehabilitation and development via their economic aid programs.
Japan has provided about $130 million a year since the early 1990s, mostly in the form of grant aid, while China channels its assistance largely through loans.
For years, however, some Cambodians and observers have been curious about the drive behind the Japanese and Chinese aid programs, as neither country imposes preconditions, a sharp contrast with economic aid from the United States and other Western powers that is often tied to human rights and democracy in recipient countries.
Since the early 1990s, the Japanese aid program in Cambodia has focused on infrastructure projects, including bridges, roads and irrigation networks. Japan has also been the largest donor of international funds to finance the U.N.-backed trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders.
Some Cambodians see Japan’s financial assistance to fund the operation of the U.N.-backed tribunal as part of its contribution to help heal Cambodia’s trauma from the brutal Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s.
Cynics, however, suggest Japan is giving money to finance Khmer Rouge trials as a way to harass China, Japan’s major political and economic rival in Asia. Beijing backed the Khmer Rouge regime, which is blamed for the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians during its nearly four years of repressive rule.
A Japanese diplomat in Phnom Penh denies the allegation, saying Japan sees the importance of reconstruction and the rule of law in Cambodia.
“Japan has no hidden agenda behind our assistance, which has been given for humanitarian and rule of law purposes,” the diplomat said.
Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, a Phnom Penh-based research institute, said Japan has been focusing on Southeast Asia in general and Cambodia in particular to maintain its economic role and political influence in the region.
Vannarith added Japan “is interested in balancing China’s rise.”
The rise of China, which has replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, has significantly bolstered its economic and diplomatic reach in Southeast Asia.
Vannarith said China has been conducting an experiment on its aid diplomacy in Cambodia and uses Cambodia as a model for other developing countries in the region and in the world at large.
“So far, China’s aid to Cambodia has been very effective in terms of winning the heart of Cambodian leaders,” he said.
In the last six years, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen paid 11 visits to China, more than to any other country, while Chinese leaders made six visits to the Cambodia.
King Norodom Sihamoni made five state visits to China between 2005 and 2010.
Hun Sen has no reservations about hailing Cambodia’s close diplomatic ties with China.
“Starting from the restoration of Cambodia-China diplomatic relations in 1994, the ties developed to a level of mutual trust and confidence by 2004. We are now in the state of comprehensive cooperation and partnership,” he said recently.
Hun Sen was also lavish in expressing Cambodia’s gratitude to investments from China, which totaled $5.6 billion from 2008 to last June.
The growing economic ties between China and Cambodia have prompted words of caution from Washington.