Cambodia’s Hun Sen hits back at criticism about Funan Techo canal

The former prime minister rejects suggestions that the canal will facilitate Chinese naval presence near Vietnam.
By RFA Staff
2024.04.11
Cambodia’s Hun Sen hits back at criticism about Funan Techo canal A farmer prepares a rice field in Mekong Delta's Soc Trang province, Vietnam, May 25, 2022.
Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Cambodian Senate President Hun Sen has slammed what he calls attempts to “fabricate the story” about a proposed Chinese-built canal near Vietnam’s border.

The former prime minister, who remains a powerful political figure, vehemently rejected suggestions that “the canal will further facilitate the Chinese navy near the Vietnamese border” in a post on social media platform X.

The Funan Techo canal, officially known as the Tonle Bassac Navigation Road and Logistics System Project, will connect the Cambodian coastal province of Kep on the Gulf of Thailand with the inland provinces of Kandal and Takeo, and the capital Phnom Penh via a tributary of the Mekong River.

The 180 kilometer (112 mile) canal is expected to be developed by a Chinese company as a build-operate-transfer (BOT) project at a cost of US$1.7 billion and become operational in 2028. It will see a large amount of Cambodian goods bypass Vietnam’s ports, creating some independence for the country’s foreign trade.

Vietnam has expressed concerns about the potential environmental and economic impacts of the project, which Phnom Penh sought to dismiss during a visit by Prime Minister Hun Manet to Hanoi in December. 

Hun Manet Hanoi.jpg
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet (left) on an official visit to Hanoi, Vietnam on Dec.11, 2023.  (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)

Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s second son, reportedly reassured Vietnamese leaders that the project would not impact the Mekong river water system.

Some analysts were quoted in international media as saying that the Funan Techo canal marks a decoupling effort by Cambodia from Vietnam. Hanoi is Phnom Penh’s traditional ally and helped install Hun Sen in power in the 1980s but Cambodia has leaned more towards China in recent years. 

There were also suggestions that the canal could have a dual use that would allow Chinese naval ships to travel upstream from the Gulf of Thailand to near the border with Vietnam. Kep province is just kilometers from Vietnam’s Kien Giang province and the two countries share 1,258 km (781 miles) of land border.

Anti-constitution

In his post on X, Hun Sen wrote that he “would like to remind friends or non-friends” that the presence of Chinese troops on Cambodian soil is unconstitutional. 

“Cambodia needs Chinese troops for what?” he asked. 

Hun Sen and other Cambodian officials have also previously rejected allegations that China is developing a military base at Ream, Sihanoukville province, calling them “slanderous.”

"I don't think he [Hun Sen] is wrong,” said Virak Ou, president of Future Forum, a Cambodian NGO.

Ou said he doesn’t think the canal would be useful for the Chinese military as “any conflict between China and Vietnam will be played out in the seas and airs.”

“Hun Sen's statement seems to be an indirect assurance to Vietnamese leaders that the Funan Techo canal will not be used for military purposes,” said Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer at Vietnam National University, “This statement is made at the time when Vietnam is concerned that Cambodia could help set up a Chinese military base in the region.”

“Hun Sen has been adept at walking a tightrope between China and Vietnam,” the political analyst told Radio Free Asia.

“Because of its modest influence, Cambodia relies on China for political and economic support. But if Cambodia and Vietnam can keep their relations stable, Cambodia will be able to retain agency while responding to China's demands,” Sang added.

funan.png
The projected Funan Techo canal (in blue). (Google Maps/ RFA)

Another Vietnamese analyst – Nguyen Khac Giang, visiting fellow at Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute – said that in his opinion, the apprehension surrounding the Funan Techo canal’s potential “dual” use primarily stems from concerns over the possibility of a Chinese military presence in Cambodia rather than concrete projections of how it could be used for military purposes.

“I don't see how the canal – if its announced capacity is true – can pose a serious military threat to Vietnam,” Giang said, adding “Hanoi might be more worried about developments in the Ream Naval Base.”

Geopolitical chessboard

According to the Vietnamese analyst, there should be bigger concerns about the environmental impacts on Vietnam's Mekong Delta and the possibility of Cambodia moving further away from Vietnam's economic influence as Hanoi has invested considerable effort to maintain close economic ties with Cambodia and Laos. 

Meanwhile Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program in Washington D.C. told RFA, “One only has to look at a map to see how the Funan Techo canal alters the regional geopolitical chessboard.”

The best way to reduce anxieties, Eyler suggested, is to let the Mekong River Commission – the intergovernmental body in charge of sustainable management of the river – carry out regional consultation as well as a third party technical review of the canal “as required for all projects that touch the mainstream.”

Vietnamese authorities should also be careful to “avoid inflaming Cambodia” over the Chinese military presence narrative, warned Huynh Tam Sang from Vietnam National University.

“Vietnam has valid worries, but the Hun Manet government has authority over its infrastructure projects, including the planned Funan Techo canal,” Sang said. “Hyperbolizing this problem could backfire as Vietnam could be seen as a troublemaker in the eyes of Cambodian leaders.” 

Translated by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.

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