During her first meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in January, 2009, after becoming the US ambassador to Cambodia, Carol Rodley recounted the premier “gushingly stating that he spends more of his time with the American ambassador than with any other members of the diplomatic community”.
But just weeks earlier, Rodley signed off on a confidential diplomatic cable that labelled 2008 Cambodia’s “Year of China”, which she said “looks to become its ‘Century of China’”.
Cables from the US embassy in Phnom Penh made public on Tuesday by anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks provide an inside view into US concerns that China’s growing influence in the Kingdom would fuel corruption, inhibit progress on human rights and challenge the ability of other donors to sway the government on difficult issues. “China has spared no effort this year in celebrating the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations with Cambodia,” Rodley wrote in the cable. “The list of Chinese visitors is so long that the Chinese embassy’s political and economic officers have complained to [embassy officials] that they never get any rest."
Rodley noted that China’s pledge of US$256 million in bilateral assistance for 2009 was “the highest single donor-country contribution to Cambodia ever”, cementing China’s position as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign aid.
Chinese money has come almost entirely in the form of loans to fund infrastructure projects – such as roads, bridges, hydropower dams and natural resource exploration – often invested in, or built by, Chinese companies.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen repeatedly praises Chinese aid to Cambodia's other donors, citing its ‘no strings attached’ feature, although many point to the Chinese access to mineral and resource wealth as one among a number of non-transparent quid pro quos,” Rodley said.
She noted in the cable, however, that Hun Sen “does not forget” the role played by China and the US in supporting the Khmer Rouge-led alliance that represented Cambodia at the United Nations during the 1980s.
“The RGC inherently does not trust its big friends, China included,” she said. “We expect, therefore, that Cambodia will continue to play its balancing act among great powers as it charts its own course in the future.”
China’s influence in the Kingdom also features prominently in a December, 2008 cable written in Rodley’s name analysing Cambodia’s quest for hydropower development. She expresses concern that donors appear able to wield limited influence on the issue.
Cambodian officials reportedly told diplomats that the processes for assistance from donors such as the Japanese International Co-operation Agency and the World Bank were too slow, as they began prioritising projects based on prospective investors.
Rodley noted that Chinese firms were involved in six of the nine projects prioritised and that some of the projects, “such as the Kamchay Dam in Bokor National Park, are in areas other donors explored, then dismissed, citing envir-onmental and economic concerns”.
“The lure of Chinese and other investment overrides serious consideration of the cumulative environmental and social impacts of many dams throughout the country,” Rodley stated.
Perceived tension between US and Chinese influence came to a head in December, 2009 when the Cambodian government deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum-seekers, a move observers said was due to Chinese pressure. Just 48 hours later, China awarded the Kingdom $1.2 billion in grants and soft loans.
Theodore Allegra, chargé d’affairs at the US embassy, said in a December 22 cable that Chinese assistance “provides a strong incentive for Cambodia to support Beijing’s policy objectives”.
Allegra said the “coincidence” of the deportation and the economic assistance “raise questions about the non-transparent quid pro quos often attached to China’s ‘no strings attached’ assistance”.
“Nevertheless, China’s conditions on assistance appear more palpable to the RGC than other international development partners’ ‘strings’, and could erode donor efforts to use assistance to promote improved governance and respect for human rights,” he said.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, yesterday dismissed concerns about Chinese funding and influence, and said the Kingdom had “very good co-operation” with both countries. A Chinese embassy spokesman could not be reached.