By Sun Narin & Colin Meyn

Cambodia’s incoming prime minister, General Hun Manet, had a trial run over the weekend for his most important foreign relationship, hosting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a visit to Phnom Penh.

Hun Manet assured Wang Yi that Cambodia’s new government will maintain an “unchanged stance” on Bejing’s one-China policy and a “non-interference policy” toward China, according to a message on the Cambodian leader’s Facebook page.

Hun Manet also agreed to join a Belt and Road Initiative forum in China in mid-October, which is likely to be one of his first foreign trips after being sworn in to office later this month. He will join the 20th China-ASEAN exposition in Nanning, the capital of the southern Guangxi region.

Following his visit to Phnom Penh, Wang Yi said the forum would promote China’s “industrial development corridor” and “fish and rice corridor,” as well as “enhance Cambodia's capacity for independent development at a faster pace,” according to a statement on the Chinese embassy’s website.

He also thanked Hun Sen for his “historic contribution” to the China-Cambodia friendship and said Beijing is “ready to work with the new Cambodian government…so that the friendship between the two countries is deeply rooted in people's hearts and passes on from generation to generation.”

However, Hun Manet received Beijing’s highest blessing long before Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last month that his eldest son would succeed him within weeks of July’s national parliamentary election.

In February last year, Hun Sen brought Hun Manet to a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “His excellency the president strongly believes in Hun Manet’s capacity … to maintain the speed of development” for the country, said a senior Cambodian official after the visit.

Cambodia over the past decade has become increasingly reliant on China for its economic growth, and by extension its political stability. At the same time, Cambodia has been a spoiler in regional efforts to counter China’s rising influence.

No one expects those dynamics to change under Hun Manet, who will have his father watching over him as president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

However, there is some optimism that the 45-year-old West Point-educated scion will find a way to achieve a greater balance between Beijing and democratic countries — including the United States, Japan, Australia and European Union members — that have funded much of Cambodia’s recovery after the murderous Khmer Rouge and civil wars that continued until the early 1990s.

“People expect this because they know Hun Manet understands the Western perspectives very well given his educational background,” said Chhay Lim, a visiting fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Chhay Lim said the main question is not whether Cambodia will change its China strategy, but whether Phnom Penh can “formulate strategies to engage with Western nations or to cultivate more friendly relations with them for potential economic benefits,” given that the U.S. and EU remain its largest export markets.

The ruling party’s critics are skeptical that Hun Manet can bring about the type of democratic reforms that would be necessary to improve relations with Western powers. He is taking over following an election in which the main opposition party was barred from participating, amid an ongoing crackdown on all forms of dissent.

“The Hun Sen regime is trapped in its authoritarianism. This regime cannot afford any kind of liberalization, because this would lead to the collapse of the regime,” Sam Rainsy, the longtime opposition leader currently living in France, told VOA Khmer in a telephone interview on August 7.

“I think they are going irreversibly to more and more authoritarianism,” he said. “And this trend can only be supported by China.”

Sam Rainsy said the notion that Western countries can somehow pull Hun Manet or Hun Sen away from China was an “illusion,” especially while Hun Sen continues to “pull the strings.”

The 71-year-old prime minister, in power since 1985, said he will remain the president of the ruling party and become president of the Senate and head of King Norodom Sihamoni’s advisory council — giving him many levers of power despite ceding his premiership.

Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a senior lecturer at the Center for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University in Sweden, said Hun Sen would continue to wield immense power in the short-term.

Whether Hun Manet might deviate from his father’s geopolitical path in the long-run remains a “complete question mark,” she said. But efforts are already underway in Cambodia to court Western countries through a “think tank” at the Foreign Ministry staffed by Western-educated officials, she added.

“Whilst the emphasis of the new government will be on deepening cooperation with China, I think there is an ambition toward diversification and a sort of normalization of relations with the U.S.,” Norén-Nilsson told VOA Khmer.

The CPP has also spent more than $1 million on high-end lobbyists to burnish Cambodia’s image in Washington in recent years.

Of particular concern to U.S. policymakers is development at Cambodia’s main naval base, where U.S. officials say China is secretly building a naval facility for its exclusive use. Both Phnom Penh and Beijing deny the reports.

"It is not targeted at any third party, and will be conducive to even closer practical cooperation between the two militaries, better fulfillment of international obligations and provision of international public goods," Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian said last year.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said last week anyone who accuses Cambodia of being biased in favor of China is, in fact, biased against China. And he said Hun Manet’s geopolitical strategy would become clear with time.

“We can’t analyze anything yet,” he told VOA Khmer by phone. But, he added, whoever is the prime minister “has to adhere to CPP’s policy unchangeably.”

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Voice of America.

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