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India rolls out red carpet for Cambodian King amid tussle with China in Southeast Asia

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni being welcomed by Minister of State for External Affairs Rajkumar Ranjan Singh in New Delhi on Monday (Image courtesy: MEA)

Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni’s two-day India visit starting Monday is set to open a new chapter in the two millennia-old relationship between the two countries.

The last time the King of Cambodia visited India was in 1963 when Norodom Sihanouk, the current King’s father, travelled to New Delhi a year after the India-China war.

Sihamoni’s is the second high-profile visit to India from the Southeast Asian nation this year after Lieutenant General Hun Manet, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and Commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, was in New Delhi for three days this February.

Hun Manet is the eldest son of Hun Sen who has been the country’s Prime Minister since 1985 and is expected to play the role of a key decision-maker in the times to come in a region where China continues to wield its influence.

India too has spotlighted Cambodia being an important interlocutor and a good partner in the context of its ‘Act East’ policy and the ASEAN.

india cambodia relations

Last November, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar chose Cambodia for his first foreign visit after assuming office while Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also travelled to Siem Reap for the maiden India-ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting and the 9th ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus).

Emphasising the deep cultural and historical ties between the two countries, Dhankhar said, “Cambodians look at India as the revered land of Lord Buddha, just as we think of Cambodia as our civilizational sister and extended family.”

The office of Hun Manet – who paid a courtesy call to Defence Minister Singh in Siem Reap – said that India supports the Cambodian General as a future Prime Ministerial candidate of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and wants the military ties and defence cooperation between the two countries to continue.

Hun Manet Cambodia
Lieutenant General Hun Manet, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and Commander of the Royal Cambodian Army in New Delhi, earlier this year

Several countries, including the United States, have been worried about the increasing activities of Chinese military in the region, particularly at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in the Gulf of Thailand.

In November 2022, after a meeting with the Cambodian PM at the White House, US President Joe Biden raised concerns regarding the situation at Ream Naval Base and “underscored the importance of full transparency” about activities by the Chinese military there.

Beijing admitted that the upgrade of Cambodia’s largest naval base is assisted by it and insisted that it is a “normal activity” of providing assistance to the country.

Ream Naval Base in Cambodia (Image courtesy: Twitter/@PeacePalaceKH)

Meanwhile, following the key visits, new momentum in the bilateral military and strategic relations has been witnessed with the Indian Army supporting Cambodia by offering customised training modules for the Royal Cambodian Army and the inaugural Army to Army Staff Talks (AAST) taking place in Siem Reap last month.

A roadmap for defence cooperation activities between both armies has been developed with India remaining committed to enhancing the Royal Cambodian Army’s capacity through military hardware.

New Delhi has already extended a grant of USD 1.5 million for the purchase of demining equipment and has offered a Line of Credit (LoC) worth USD 50 million for the procurement of defence equipment from India.

Considering an eastward extension of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway towards Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, India has also requested Phnom Penh to utilise the USD 1 billion Line of Credit (LoC) offered by it to all ASEAN countries for physical and digital connectivity projects.

India’s strong association with Cambodia reflects not just through providing Covid-19 vaccines, extended grants and concessional loans for developmental projects but also the massive funding provided for the conservation and restoration of awe-aspiring ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Preah Vihar.

In New Delhi, the Cambodian King will be accorded a ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Tuesday followed by bilateral talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Droupadi Murmu hosting a State Banquet in honour of the visiting dignitary later in the evening.

Even though the State visit marks the culmination of the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Cambodia, which were established in 1952, the centuries-old cultural, religious and people-to-people connect is only expected to get stronger in the times to come.