Chinese foreign minister begins SE Asian tour in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) - China and Cambodia signed a free trade agreement on Monday when China's Foreign Minister visited Phnom Penh as part of a Southeast Asia tour with four nations.
China's Foreign Ministry announced that Foreign Minister Wang Yi will make official visits to Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand this week, as well as a transit visit to Singapore.
Cambodia is Beijing's most loyal ally in the region and its economic growth has depended on aid and investment from China. The two nations also have an ideological affinity, emphasizing the tight control of their ruling parties over human rights concerns.
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Wang's tour comes as China and the US battle for influence in Southeast Asia. Historically, the US has been the most popular partner, but Beijing has made great strides as China's growing wealth and confidence enables it to forge allies without human rights restrictions.
In the case of Cambodia, this has given Beijing a supportive Cambodian voice in international and regional forums. There is also strong suspicion, particularly from Washington, that Cambodia has granted China the right to use a strategic naval base on its territory in the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodian and Chinese officials deny there is such a deal.
The signing of the Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement was witnessed by Wang and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had previously held a meeting.
Details of the deal were not made public, but Commerce Department spokesman Seang Thay said China would grant duty-free status to about 98% of its imports from Cambodia, while up to 90% of Chinese exports to Cambodia would be tariff-free. The Cambodian exports recorded are predominantly agricultural. China is Cambodia's main market for rice, mangoes and bananas.
The meaning of the pact is as symbolic as it is practical, as it is intended as a kind of substitute for preferential tariff conditions that the European Union withdrew from Cambodia for identifying "serious and systematic concerns about human rights".
The EU. Removed duty-free privileges equivalent to roughly one-fifth of Cambodian exports going to Europe each year, valued at $ 1 billion (US $ 1.2 billion).
Hun Sen has acknowledged that Cambodia's economy would be affected by the move, but said the country could make it and he would not bow to Western pressure.
China also agreed to provide Cambodia with $ 140 million in new aid for urgent development, including infrastructure.

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