Beijing and Phnom Penh on Thursday signed billions of dollars’ worth of agreements to improve Cambodia’s infrastructure, including a U.S. $2 billion deal to build a new expressway linking the capital with the coastal resort city of Sihanoukville.
The deals came at the end of a two-day visit to Cambodia by Chinese premier Li Keqiang, who had traveled to Phnom Penh for the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation forum, outlining China’s plans to build dams along the Southeast Asian waterway.
Li met with his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen Thursday to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between their two nations and oversaw the signing of 19 agreements that included funding for a new international airport in Phnom Penh, the construction of a national transmission line connecting Cambodia to Laos’ power grid, and a hospital.
The two nations also signed an agreement through which China will fund the construction of a 190-kilometer (120-mile) highway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville that Cambodian Public Works and Transport Minister Sun Chanthol told the Associated Press will cost U.S. $2 billion and will take at least 44 months to complete after beginning construction this year.
China pledged support through a joint investment for the launch of Cambodia’s first communications satellite, the U.S. $150 million Techo 1 project, which Cambodian Minister of Post and Telecommunications Tram Iv Tek said will take at least three years to complete.
In exchange, Cambodia pledged to support China’s international goals, including its claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The two sides hailed the “important and fruitful outcomes of the visit” in a joint statement issued after the agreements were signed.
The slew of deals comes weeks after the U.S. and EU condemned the Cambodian government’s targeting of the opposition ahead of a general election scheduled for July this year, which they said had called the legitimacy of the vote into question, withdrawing electoral support and placing trade agreements with the Southeast Asian nation under review.
Authorities arrested opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha in September on charges of “treason,” and two months later the Supreme Court ruled to disband his party for allegedly planning a “rebellion” with backing from Washington, essentially eliminating any challenge to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of the election this year.
Hun Sen has repeatedly stressed that his country does not need foreign governments to fund its elections, or international recognition of their legitimacy, saying acceptance by Cambodians is sufficient.
He has also said that he will continue to welcome aid from China, which is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s top foreign donor, and which is currently Cambodia’s largest international aid provider.
China typically offers aid to countries without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights.
Cambodia has said China will provide various equipment for the July election, including ballot boxes and booths.
Last week, Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou said that in addition to being its largest source of international aid, China is also Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment, its largest trade partner, and its largest source of foreign tourists.
China has provided Cambodia with millions of dollars in aid and investment in the past decade, grants Cambodia tariff-free status on hundreds of products, and has forgiven the country’s debt.
Also on Thursday, CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San warned CNRP officials to cease lobbying for international pressure on Cambodia to reinstate their party or “further criminalize themselves under Cambodian law” through “rebellious acts” against the government.
In a statement sent through the Telegram messaging app, Sok Ey San called Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya—a CNRP permanent committee member who has been gathering support for her party from Western governments—the “daughter of a rebel,” whose “campaign will not succeed.”
In recent months, Kem Monovithya has attended a panel meeting with the U.S. and EU permanent missions to the United Nations, where she requested that Cambodia’s seat at the world body be withheld, called for economic sanctions against Cambodia’s government, and requested visa restrictions be put in place to punish Cambodian officials responsible for curbing democracy in the country.
In addition to condemning those activities, Sok Ey San slammed Kem Monovithya for urging senior U.S. State Department officials to freeze the assets of Cambodian officials who deposit money abroad and calling on Washington to pressure Japan to withdraw its electoral assistance to Cambodia.
Last week, Japan—which along with the EU is the largest funder of Cambodia’s 2018 elections—said it has no intention to pull its electoral aid ahead of this year’s elections.
Japan has already provided Cambodia’s National Election Commission (NEC) with computers to assist with the ballots and has faced criticism of its continued support from observers, such as New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.