China in Cambodia: Challenges of Friendship

China’s engagement in the port of Koh Kong in Cambodia has invited international scrutiny. Like many other sea nodes of theBelt Road Initiative such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti, the commercial and financial viability of Koh Kong project is a major concern. Further, there are good reasons to believe that the project can be used for military purposes.

Labeled as the future Meccaof tourism, the Koh Kong port development project is spread over 45,000 hectares. The Cambodian government has leased this prime real estate to Union Development Group,a private property developer from China,on a 90-years lease at a rent of ‘just US$1 million per year’. The property would be returned to Cambodia in 2108after the lease expires.

The project involves building casinos, golf courses and luxury resorts for entrainment, and the 20 kilometres long coastline would serve as a deep-water port meant for servicing cruise liners that would arrive with Chinese tourists. The port is also linked to an airport which is currently under construction by the same company. It would have a 3,400 meters long runway, longer than the international airport at Phnom Penh.

The fears about Koh Kong being turned into future Chinese military-naval outpost came to the fore after Dan Coats, the USdirector of national intelligence in his report referred to the possibility of the port being put to military use by China. This prompted US Vice President Mike Pence to convey in a letterhis country’s concern to Prime Minister Hun Sen. “I have received a letter from Mike Pence, US Vice President, regarding concerns that there will be a China naval base in Cambodia”

The Cambodian government denied any such plans; Prime Minister Hun Sen clarified that the Cambodian constitution has no provision for accommodating foreign military bases on its soil. Further, there were no plans to bring about any amendments to the constitution to facilitate such projects.

There is no denying the fact that there is strong evidence of Chinese influence in Cambodia, and China has been perhaps most accommodative to Cambodian worries arising from European Union and the US sanctions following Hun Sen’s unopposedelection victory. Whatever may be the outcome of the sanctions, it is fair to conclude that China has stood for Cambodia in difficult times such as these and has even offered financial support to overcome any future crisis that may emerge from the sanctions. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has decided to make Cambodia its regional hub; Kevin Li, general manager for global delivery at Alibaba’s transnational logistics platform Cainiao Smart Logistics Network Ltd. has stated that “China’s ties with the government is another factor behind this logistics (move). Cambodia is very close to China which makes doing business here easier when one has access to the central government,”

At another level, there are visible signs of Chinese bankrolled entrainment destinations and infrastructure projects across the country- Sihanoukvilleis the leading hub of casinos; roads and highways are under construction across the country; and dams are coming up on the Mekong River. Prime Minister Hun Sen launched the 400-megawatt Lower Sesan 2 hydropower project located just 25 kilometres from the Mekong River. It is supportedby Chinese funding of $780 million and Hydrolancang International Energy, a subsidiary of Huaneng Group from China, has 51 per cent stakein the project. The rest is shared between Cambodia’s Royal Group (39 per cent) and a subsidiary of Electricity of Vietnam control (10 per cent).

There are growing concernsin Cambodiaover the damming of Mekong River and its tributaries. The river originates in China (Tibetan Plateau)and runs 4,800 kilometres through Yunnan Province; thence through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia; and finally discharges into the South China through Vietnam. According to a US based non-government organization International Rivers, 11 dams are planned on the Mekong’s lower mainstream (6 of theseare funded by China in Cambodia and Laos) and 30 are planned on its tributaries.

Cambodia is a lower riparian state and has repeatedly asked Chinese to provide hydrological data, and schedules for releasing water from the dams. Although, China agreed to release such information during June to October (rainy season months) but refused information for the rest of the year, noting that it is an ‘internal matter’.

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the lower riparian countries have formed an intergovernmental organization called the Mekong River Commission (MGC), but China has chosen not to be a party for at least two reasons: (a) MGC is funded by Western countries; and (b) it does not have to provide data, which these countries need desperately. However, Chinahas proposed the Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation Framework (LMC) under which it offers these countries financial aid, a way to ‘demonstrate its leadership to the downstream countries and improve its image through the LMC.’

Although hydroelectric projects are much needed in the country given that Cambodia has acute shortage of power and must achieve the target of 100 percent electricity access by 2020, there are several social and environmental impacts which appear to have been overlooked.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International foundation, New Delhi.

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