Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday waved off concerns that China “wants to control” his country, calling the claim a trick by the opposition to turn public opinion against him, even as observers warned that mounting loans and aid will leave Phnom Penh hopelessly indebted to Beijing.
Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony in Kampong Speu province for a new U.S. $2 billion Chinese-funded expressway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Hun Sen called the project an “historic milestone for the people and the country,” and sought to dismiss any suggestions that China is buying influence over his government.
“Even if China wants to control Cambodia, Cambodia won’t allow that to happen,” he said, suggesting such allegations were “rumors” spread by members of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“China doesn’t have a policy to control anyone. This is what I have observed,” he added.
The 190-kilometer (118-mile) road, which is expected to be completed in 2023, is being constructed by the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Under the terms of the agreement, the company will control the expressway for 50 years before handing it over to Cambodia’s government.
In a Facebook post, Hun Sen had said the project will “strengthen Cambodia’s economy” and that his government “won’t let the country die, or allow anyone to destroy it.”
Cambodia drew condemnation after its Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, paving the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to steamroll a general election in July last year widely seen as unfree and unfair.
After the CPP’s election victory, Beijing offered its full support of Hun Sen’s government, and Cambodia has increasingly backed China in its international affairs, including in disputes with ASEAN nations over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese investment has flowed into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to Sihanoukville, where the expressway will end—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
Meanwhile, Western influence in Cambodia is on the decline amid criticism of Hun Sen and the CPP over rollbacks on democracy in the lead up to and aftermath of the ballot.
The U.S. has since announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and the European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
During Friday’s ceremony, Hun Sen lashed out at the West for pressuring his government over its policies.
“Some countries order sovereign nations to follow their directives, and if they don’t, they impose sanctions,” he said, adding that such an approach is “very different from how China operates.”
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, who attended the ceremony, also dismissed concerns over China’s presence in Cambodia, and said the project was part of a bid to increase cooperation between the two nations.
“Certain bad groups are trying to turn white to black—they label Chinese investment a trap because they are jealous, so they make groundless allegations,” he said.
“The truth is that Chinese investment is not a trap or a threat. This is simply done to help boost Cambodia’s development.”
Hun Sen has repeatedly said that he will continue to welcome aid from China, which is currently Cambodia’s largest international aid provider and typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.
He has also dismissed reports of government plans to amend the constitution to allow China to build a naval base in the country as “fake news” and part of a “foreign campaign to mislead the public and the international community with the intention of destroying the country’s independence and neutrality.”
If such a naval base were built on the Gulf of Thailand, it would allow China to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims much of, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.
On Friday, Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA) executive director San Chey told RFA’s Khmer Service that without careful management of China’s loans and grants, Cambodia could find itself in significant debt, and obligated to follow Beijing’s bidding.
“In order to make sure the country benefits, it is important to manage those debts carefully,” he said.
“We are concerned that Cambodia will face the same fate as some African countries.”
Nearly 40 percent of sub-Saharan African countries are facing a “major debt crisis,” according to the Overseas Development Institute, and observers say that major infrastructure projects carried out by Chinese companies are partly to blame, as they often saddle the nations with huge debts they are unable to repay.
The Jubilee Debt Campaign, a charity which campaigns for the cancellation of debt held by impoverished countries, says that around 20 percent of African government external debt is owed to China.
Trade volume between Cambodia and China was valued at U.S. $5.8 billion in 2017, up 22 percent from U.S. $4.76 billion dollars a year earlier, while China is currently Cambodia’s largest investor, and has poured U.S. $12.6 billion into the Southeast Asian nation from 1994 to 2017.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.