Cambodia should seek business opportunities from “diversified partners” rather than become too dependant on a narrow range of countries, France’s Secretary of State for Foreign Trade said yesterday.
Speaking to The Post at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh before setting off to meet Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, Pierre Lellouche said Asian nations such as China and South Korea had gained substantial market share in Cambodia.
“For these ... pre-emerging countries like Cambodia, I believe it is in their own good interest to have diversified partners and not just one,” he said.
“So, all in all, we expect to continue our efforts [in the region]. This is certainly what I’m doing in my job.”
Lellouche, France’s former Secretary of State for European Affairs, was speaking before visiting Laos for the inauguration a hydroelectric dam.
His visit to the Kingdom was billed as a trip to further French business ties in Cambodia and also included meetings with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and Finance Minister Keat Chhon.
“We have no political problems with Cambodia – it’s a very close friend of France.
“But we do have a lag in commercial investment, so we need to boost this relationship as we are doing in other countries in the region,” he said.
However, he added that he had observed a high degree of competition in both Cambodia’s domestic and regional markets.
“In my visit to Vietnam two weeks ago and again here, what is extremely striking is the extraordinary level of ruthless competition. It’s very, very tough,” he said.
“We are faced really with a wall of Asian presence, especially Chinese presence and market shares that are staggering.”
While France is the largest European trade partner with Cambodia and maintains close links through business and culture, Lellouche said its enterprises would like to play a larger role in the Kingdom.
He pointed to a number of opportunities.
Negotiations between Cambodia’s largest mobile phone provider Mobitel and France Telecom are ongoing, he said. France Telecom had previously been linked to a possible purchase of Mobitel.
Infrastructure development also offered opportunities for France, he said.
“We have essentially a country which is growing very fast, with a number of infrastructural bottlenecks – transportation, energy, water treatment, and so on. So what [France is] trying to do is be present in all of these fields,” he said.
He added that France also was interested in areas such as improving Phnom Penh’s lighting systems, through a public private partnership, as well as the airports and agro-industry.
France is also looking to build roads in Cambodia.
“At the moment, it’s essentially an Asian monopoly, but we hope to do a number of roads including here in the Phnom Penh area. We are working on it,” he said.
Lellouche said different approaches were taken towards doing business in pre-emerging markets. In many instances, France had cancelled debt “to clean out the board for a country so it can start anew, without debt”, he said.
“China has another policy. It has easily granted loans, which can give important advantages to recipient countries. They need the loans in order to quickly build infrastructure. But, at the same time, it has raised risk to increase debts’ level at a large scale,” he said.
France and the rest of the European Union have completely dropped tariffs for goods from Cambodia and other Least Developed Countries under its Everything But Arms initiative, providing an opportunity for Cambodia to increase exports.
There was a political dimension to French decision making, as well as a business-focused policy, according to Lellouche. As a democracy, France was concerned with protecting human rights.
“We are in the business of sharing universal values, we are not in the position of closing our eyes,” he said.
“But we believe through trade, through education, through development, you actually build up open society.”
Lellouche also extended France’s condolences to the Kingdom for the bridge tragedy.
“We do express deep sorrow for what happened on the bridge two weeks ago. It’s a very sad story and it has had quite an impact in France,” he said.
The secretary of state intends to travel to Cambodia again in late March for the inaugural flight on Air France’s Paris to Phnom Penh route.