The government's press release announcing the arrival on April 7 of Chinese
Prime Minister Wen Jaibao in Phnom Penh reads like a child's Christmas wish
In florid diplomatic tones, the statement proclaims a two-day
spree of gift-giving that will shower Cambodia with fire trucks, crime fighters,
temple preservation and its own information superhighway.
All that, and
the Kingdom's first national botanical garden thrown in for good measure.
In 48 hours, a total of 11 agreements will be signed by the government
and the People's Republic of China, the Jaibao entourage will visit King
Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, among others, and then attend
groundbreaking ceremonies for two Chinese-funded developments - the new
$49-million Council of Ministers office and the $280-million Kamchay
Hydroelectric Power Dam near Kampot.
"The major purpose of the visit is
to increase the relationship with Cambodia," said Li Jie, First Secretary of the
Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh. "This is the first time Premier Wen Jaibao has
Symbolic niceties aside, the visit will be more
significant for the money that changes hands in the form of soft loans, grants,
aid donations and debt reduction - not to mention what many believe will be a
marathon of backroom deals and private investment bids.
like the arrangement because it is untransparent," one senior Western diplomat
told the Post. "But we all know these are loans are contingent on something.
There may be conditions we don't know about - all loans entail this. But we
don't know what the side agreements are, what the conditions are for
According to the minutes of a recent Council of Ministers
meeting, Cambodia expects to receive a credit package worth $200 million to $300
million. A local news agency reported that the meetings may also yield $80
million in non-refundable aid and $80 million in zero-percent loans.
"Today the most important Chinese influence is in the economic field,"
said government spokesman Khieu Kanharith. "China allows us to export thousands
of products to China with no tariffs."
Last year bilateral trade
increased 50 percent. In July 2005, Hun Sen returned from Beijing with almost
$400 million worth of loans, grants and promised investment. But observers and
diplomats have expressed concern about China's generous stance with Cambodia -
asking specifically how the Cambodian people are benefiting from the
relationship, and at what cost to the country's dwindling natural
"From experience, China does not help other countries with
economic development - China does not help at all," said Sam Rainsy Party
parliamentarian Son Chhay.
"In every country that China has relations
with, China uses its influence to take natural resources and raw materials from
those countries in order to serve its commercial needs."
biggest benefactor to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and Cambodia's largest
foreign investor since 2004, has been a salient absence at recent Consultative
Group meetings and has drawn criticism for what some consider to be blatant
disregard for the environment and human rights.
"If you look at the
rubber plantations and the deforestation caused by some of the road construction
- I am not sure that Cambodia is benefiting from this relationship," said
opposition leader Sam Rainsy on April 6.
"People talk about 'win-win'
situations but I see 'win-win-lose' in which corrupt officials win and the
unscrupulous investors win, but the Cambodian people lose."
in reference to the construction of a road network in northwest Cambodia by a
Shanghai-based company and the agreement signed last week between a Chinese
rubber-producing conglomerate and a Cambodian firm to plant a 63,000-hectare
rubber plantation in Preah Vihear province.
And Chhay said that only
China "goes and builds buildings for national institutions in other countries in
order to motivate [their governments]. China builds the new buildings for the
National Assembly and builds new buildings for the Council of Ministers. This is
'passive corruption;' it means that China agreed to build the buildings for the
legislative and executive institutions in order to get commercial
China's biggest single investment in Cambodia is equally
controversial. The Kamchay Hydroelectric Power Dam, to be completed by Chinese
company Sinohydro in 2010, has raised fears with environmental NGOs and the
public that the dam would flood 2,600 hectares in Bokor National Park, and
destroy the livelihoods of local villagers.
"The Chinese are like locusts
now," the diplomat said. "They consume natural resources, animals, mineral
rights - and they work outside of environmental protection. The Chinese don't
know how to control their companies."
Complicating matters is the
tumultuous historical relationship between the two regional neighbors. According
to journalist Tom Fawthrop, Cambodia's "special links" to China began in the
1960s with former King Sihanouk's neutral foreign policy and close personal ties
with Chinese leaders Mao Tsetung and Chou Enlai.
But a decade later,
China's bitter rivalry with Vietnam convinced its government to support the
Khmer Rouge regime through the 1970s, and then spend $300 million annually to
fund Khmer Rouge rebel groups in the 1980s. In 1988 Hun Sen famously wrote that
"China is the root of all that is evil in Cambodia."
Kanharith said that
in the past "we had a good relationship with China. But that good relationship
had to be postponed when Cambodians were fighting each other. Lon Nol broke off
our relationship with China, but later China was supporting the [Khmer Rouge].
In short, China has always been involved in the political issues of
According to Kanharith, relations began to improve after the
1993 Paris Peace Agreements, to which China was a signatory.
bilateral ties have warmed to the extent that Cambodia has embraced Beijing's
"one-China" policy regarding its territorial claims to Taiwan.