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Cambodia-China relations: Brotherly love in time of pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic shows no sign of abating as the Omicron variant spreads worldwide sparking panic, finger-pointing and travel bans. In a small corner of Asia, however, the deadly malady, rather than inciting discord, is fostering cooperation.

China, a global superpower, has authorized Cambodia to produce its Sinovac-CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccine.  “We have been granted the right to produce the vaccines in our own country, which enables us to use it for our own use and also to distribute to other countries,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said last week.

China has already donated millions of doses of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines to Cambodia, allowing the country to vaccinate 80% of its population and open up to the rest of the world.  As of December 2, about 28.8 million doses of COVID vaccines had been administered to 13.4 million Cambodians.

Wang Wentian, Beijing top envoy to Phnom Penh, thinks that the pandemic has cemented diplomatic ties and brought the two countries closer. Bilateral relations were already robust. Between 1992-2020, China gave Cambodia more than US$4 billion in grants and total Chinese investments have reached about US$27 billion up to October this year.

China is a valuable friend to have as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the globe. It is technically preparing to tackle the Omicron variant and has done preliminary research into different vaccines, including inactivated vaccines and recombinant protein vaccines.

Beijing-based vaccine producer CanSino told Global Times last week that it had already started working on vaccines against the new variant. Some Chinese bio-tech companies said their nucleic acid testing kits had been upgraded and they were able to detect all prevailing variants, be it Delta, Gamma, Beta or Omicron.

So China has been a solid ally of Cambodia. But Phnom Penh realizes assistance cannot be a one-way street. Therefore, like China, it is also reaching out. Last week, the Cambodian government along with six of the country’s largest private enterprises donated US$13 million to Laos to fight the pandemic. It also gave 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines and two refrigerated trucks to transport them to Laos.

Foremost among the private donations was US$2 million given by Prince Holding Group, led by its Chairman Chen Zhi Cambodia. The company is one of the largest conglomerates in Cambodia with more than 80 businesses operating in its property, banking, finance, aviation, tourism, logistics, technology, food and beverage and lifestyle sectors.

Earlier in March, Chen Zhi contributed US$3 million to the Cambodian government’s anti-pandemic efforts. That was on top of the US$3 million donated by Prince Group in December last year to help Cambodia purchase 1 million COVID-19 vaccines.

A growing domestic economy has allowed conglomerates like Chen Zhi Cambodia’s Prince Group to expand even during the pandemic, putting it in a position to not only to help Cambodians but also people in other countries. These companies have prospered thanks to solid planning and support, in the form of infrastructure building and favorable tax policies, rendered by the Cambodian government.

Last week for example Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated a waste-water plant and 37 roads in Preah Sihanouk Province built at a cost of more than US$300 million.

The province is where Prince Holding Group’s affiliate Canopy Sands Development is building a brand-new city at an estimated total investment of US$16 billion.  Ream City will sit on 834 hectares of reclaimed land in Ream Bay and be home to about 130,000 residents, marking a milestone for real estate investment in Cambodia. It will include commercial and residential properties along with a 6km beachfront linked to Sihanoukville, the provincial capital.

Apart from a deep-sea port, Preah Sihanouk Province currently houses about 10 Special Economic Zones with the Chinese-majority owned Sihanoukville SEZ being the largest. By 2023, China Road & Bridge Corp, a state enterprise, is expected to finish building the US$2 billion Sihanoukville-Phnom Penh expressway. That is also expected to spur more real-estate development in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s ties with China, meanwhile, look set to strengthen as its Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn led a delegation on an official visit to Hangzhou in China’s Zhejiang province on December 3.

Sokhonn’s visit came at the invitation of Chinese State Councilor and foreign minister Wang Yi.

During the visit, Sokhonn met with Wang to discuss various issues including the COVID-19 recovery.

The strategic partnership between the two countries has been described as “ironclad”. The top leaders of both countries appear to be committed to continue strengthening and expanding bilateral relations – despite skeptics who claim that it makes Cambodia too heavily dependent on China.

So we can conclude, China is generous with Cambodia, which in turn is generous with its neighbor Laos.

Brotherhood amid the pandemic would be an appropriate sobriquet.