PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — China’s foreign minister visited Cambodia over the weekend to reaffirm his country’s commitment to the southeast Asian country after its incumbent prime minister handed off the job to his son following a one-sided election last month, officials said.
Wang Yi is the first foreign leader to visit Cambodia, days after Hun Sen’s announcement that his 45-year-old son and the country’s army chief, Hun Manet, is replacing him.
A video of the meeting was posted on Hun Sen’s Telegram channel on Sunday.
Eang Sophalleth, Hun Sen’s spokesman, told reporters after the meeting that Wang Yi expressed China’s willingness to cooperate with the newly-appointed prime minister.
Hun Sen, the longest-serving government head in Asia, and his party sealed a landslide victory in the country’s general election after barring the main opposition group —the Candlelight Party— from contesting the polls on a technicality. Western nations and rights groups criticized the election saying it was neither “free” nor “fair.”
Wang Yi met with both Hun Sen, his newly appointed son as well as Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn. He praised the election saying it was free and fair, with more than 80% of Cambodians participating in the presence of several dozens of foreign observers.
On August 7, King Norodom Sihamoni formally appointed Hun Manet as the new premier. He will take office on Aug. 22 when the new National Assembly adopts the new cabinet.
Hun Manet won his first seat in Parliament in the election, and the handover from his father is part of a larger, generational shift: Many younger lawmakers —mostly educated in the West — are expected to take up ministerial positions, including Hun Sen’s youngest son and others related to older party members.
Cambodia is a key Chinese diplomatic partner, helping 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.
In return, China has gained an outsized role in Cambodian politics and the economy, as seen in the numerous Chinese-funded projects, hotels and casinos dotting the landscape. China’s state banks have also 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.
In June last year, China and Cambodia broke ground on a naval port expansion project that has raised concerns from the U.S. and others that it could give Beijing a strategically important military outpost on the Gulf of Thailand.
Hun Sen in 2019 reportedly granted China the right to set up a military base at the Ream Naval Base. He has long denied that, saying Cambodia’s Constitution prohibits foreign military facilities.
The aging leader, who turned 71 last Saturday, said that stepping down as prime minister “is not the end yet” and he would serve in other positions at least until 2033, which would bring him to a half-century in office. He is expected to retain a large amount of control as president of his Cambodian People’s Party and as the Senate president.
Sara Aboubakr contributed to this report from Cairo.