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China gives 600 million dollars in loans to Cambodia

Written by: Staff

PHNOM PENH, Apr 8: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gave 600 million dollars in loans and aid to Cambodia today after meeting Prime Minister Hun Sen, an increasingly close friend in a region where Beijing is looking for strategic alliances.

Half of the money, which equals the amount of aid Cambodia receives annually from international donors, will fund a hydro-electric plant, one of Hun Sen's spokesmen said.

Around 200 million dollar will pay for two major bridges across the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and the rest will go on projects such as a new Council of Ministers building, replacing the dilapidated concrete edifice now serving as Cambodia's seat of government.

''It opens a new chapter in the Cambodian-Chinese relationship,'' Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters after Wen's arrival in Phnom Penh. ''After this we believe the Chinese will bring more investment and aid to Cambodia for development.'' Even though Hun Sen has spent much of his military and political life fighting Pol Pot's Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge, analysts say he has worked hard in recent years to build Chinese ties as a counterweight to Vietnam, which lies between them.

The improved relationship also works well for Beijing.

Besides millions of dollars in aid in recent years, China gave the impoverished nation six naval patrol boats in September -- ostensibly to help combat drug and human trafficking.

However, analysts said it was also a signal of Beijing's desire to negotiate friendly deep-sea ports as part of its strategic ambitions in southeast Asia, its main fuel gateway. Sihanoukville, Cambodia's only such port, lies within reach of the eastern end of the Strait of Malacca, as well as the energy-rich but disputed Spratly Islands off the coast of southern Vietnam in the South China Sea.

Near the other end of the strait, which carries a quarter of global trade and nearly all oil imports for Japan, South Korea and China, Beijing is already thought to be negotiating naval access with the military junta in Myanmar.

''It's working the turf to establish a Chinese presence,'' said Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales in Canberra. ''It's a broadening out from the political and economic and cultural and scientific dimensions to the military.

''The larger strategic picture is China is going to become increasingly dependent on importation of Persian Gulf oil, and it has a larger and larger stake as its economy grows in making sure the sea lanes are secure,'' he said.

Wen and Hun Sen also signed an agreement for Chinese help in preserving the famed 800-year-old Angkor Wat temples, now a major overseas destination for Chinese tourists.

It is not known whether the pair discussed the upcoming trial of Pol Pot's former Khmer Rouge henchmen for the genocide of the 1970s, in which an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of starvation, torture, disease or overwork.

After long delays, the trial is expected to start next year. In revealing the extent of China's support for Pol Pot, it is likely to drag Beijing's name through the mud -- one of reasons rival Japan has committed so much money to it, analysts say.

''China has applied some pressure concerning this issue, but I don't know if they would like to make obstacles for the Khmer Rouge tribunal,'' said Thun Saray of human rights group ADHOC.

Wen, who has been on a six day swing through the South Pacific, is due to leave Cambodia today afternoon.


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