Amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, many countries are shutting down travel to and from China and warning their nationals to leave if possible. Cambodia, however, is taking the opposite approach. Prime Minister Hun Sen arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, making a highly public vote of confidence in China’s ability to control the epidemic.
Earlier, in Cambodia, Hun Sen had slammed reporters at a press briefing for wearing face masks. “The prime minister doesn’t wear a mask, so why do you?” he demanded. The same brash fearlessness was on display in his China trip.
According to Xinhua, China’s state new agency, Hun Sen told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he had “decided to make a special visit to China with an aim to showcase Cambodia’s support to China in fighting the outbreak of the epidemic.” Chinese media repeatedly emphasized the “special” nature of Hun Sen’s visit, noting that he had decided to make the trip just before leaving — and presumably after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency.
In fact, Hun Sen originally wanted to visit Wuhan, the now-quarantined epicenter of the novel strain of coronavirus that has spread across China and around the world. However, China politely declined his request. “Considering the fact that Wuhan is doing all it can to fight the outbreak and given the tight schedule, a visit to Wuhan at this moment cannot be properly arranged,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
The visit comes as China is hitting back at what it calls “excessive measures” in response to the epidemic, such as travel and trade restrictions impacting all of China. “We hope that all countries can assess the epidemic situation in an objective, fair, calm and rational manner, respect WHO recommendations, and understand and support China’s epidemic control efforts,” Hua said.
Hun Sen echoed China’s line from Beijing, saying that panic “is more terrible than the epidemic.”
As of February 5, China had confirmed over 24,400 cases of the novel coronavirus, with 492 deaths. Cambodia had registered just one case, a Chinese national.
Cambodia has grown increasingly close to China in recent years, a process only expedited in the wake of Hun Sen’s move to ban the only meaningful political opposition in the country. Western governments have been critical of the ban, causing Hun Sen to double down on his partnership with Beijing.
That close relationship with China has shaped Phnom Penh’s response to the coronavirus outbreak from the beginning. Cambodia, for instance, dismissed the idea of evacuating its citizens from China, following other close Chinese partners like Pakistan.
“We are keeping them [Cambodians] there to share [Chinese people’s] happiness and pain and to help them solve this situation,” Hun Sen said.
The prime minister has also refused to ban flights from China. The New York Times, citing Cambodian civil aviation authorities, reported that “about 3,000 travelers from Wuhan have flown to Cambodia since the epidemic was announced” in January.
Xinhua praised Cambodia’s decision not to evacuate students, impose travel restrictions on Chinese nationals, or halt flights as “important support for China.”
However, Hun Sen also made it clear that part of the rationale was fear of punishment from China: “Evacuating them would probably bring an end to opportunities for Cambodians to study there. China would stop offering scholarships.”
Indeed, when Indonesia instituted a travel ban on Chinese nationals, China warned that an “overreaction” would “have a direct impact on the [China-Indonesia] relationship.”
“We hope that Indonesia can be rational and not experience any negative impact,” China’s ambassador to the country said.
By contrast, Cambodia’s approach garnered praise. Xi told Hun Sen in their meeting that “a friend in need is a friend indeed as the Cambodian people stand with the Chinese people at this special moment.”
Xi also promised to “take good care of Cambodian citizens in China, including Cambodian students studying in China, and protect their lives and health as we treat Chinese citizens.”
At the meeting, both sides agreed to continue high-level exchanges into 2020 and to “uplift China-Cambodia relations to new heights.”
“The friendly relations between China and Cambodia are an example to the world of true friendship between countries and people,” Xi said. China is also hoping Hun Sen’s defiant dismissal of coronavirus fears will serve as an example to the world.