PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday defended his country's close ties with Beijing, declaring that a surge of mainland visitors and investment does not put Cambodia at risk of becoming a kind of Chinese colony.
Chinese investors only want to do business and China's foreign policy seeks friendship, with no desire to occupy Cambodia, Hun Sen said at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Chinese-funded hospital in the eastern province of Tboung Khmum.
Chinese investors in Cambodia have attracted criticism in recent years as their influence in the country grows. Cambodia has become increasingly reliant on Chinese aid and investment, and at the same time has become a close political ally of Beijing, supporting its positions in regional and international affairs.
China's support has made Hun Sen less dependent on aid from Western nations, which criticize his authoritarian rule. The strain with the West was exacerbated last year when Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party won every National Assembly seat in an election widely denounced as neither free nor fair.
Chinese businesses have invested several billion U.S. dollars in sectors such as tourism, real estate, agriculture, seaports and casinos. Several skyscrapers and other big property developments in the capital Phnom Penh and in the coastal provinces of Sihanoukville and Koh Kong have been financed and constructed by Chinese companies.
Some Cambodians bristle at stories of rude or arrogant Chinese visitors, including criminals who have used the country as a base for schemes such as internet fraud.
"I would like to assure the public and send this message to the world and the Cambodian people that I will not allow China to occupy Cambodia," Hun Sen said to applause from an audience that included the Chinese ambassador.
He added that the Cambodian people definitely do not accept that their country is a colony of China but are happy with the current friendship between the two nations.
Hun Sen's comments were essentially a reply to self-exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who last month wrote on his Facebook page that there are a large number of Chinese who have recently arrived in Cambodia and created tension by acting in an arrogant manner or treating Cambodians badly, especially in Sihanoukville and Koh Kong.
"In the space of just two or three years, Cambodians have sensed that their country is becoming a Chinese colony, where the foreigner with thick bundle of dollars is a king," Sam Rainsy charged, calling on Chinese who behave badly to leave the country.
Hun Sen, during a January visit to China, said Beijing has agreed to provide his nation with nearly $600 million in grant aid as part of a three-year assistance fund.
He said on his Facebook page that the commitment was made in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The two countries also agreed to increase their bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2023 and Xi promised to buy 400,000 tons of rice from Cambodia in 2019 and push more Chinese businesses to invest in Cambodia. Two-way trade was about $6 billion in 2017.