Prime Minister Hun Sen is scheduled to pay a state visit to China for talks on new infrastructure projects in Cambodia, including the Phnom Penh-Bavet Expressway. The visit will coincide with the 65th anniversary of the two nations’ bilateral relations.
Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for a bridge construction project spanning the Mekong River in Kratie province on January 2, Hun Sen revealed that beside the expressway connecting to the Vietnamese border, more new projects will also be discussed during the visit.
The premier said he would request that China help with a project to build a road connecting to the border with Laos. He said he had proposed the idea to Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian.
Hun Sen noted that Cambodia plans to spend about $200 million of its own capital in US dollars to build the bridge in Kratie as well as the expressway – the second constructed by a Chinese conglomerate after the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville expressway – that will connect Lvea Em district to the Vietnamese border.
He reiterated that the construction of bridges and roads that China has helped build are a testament to the Cambodian-Chinese “ironclad” friendship and the achievements of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said that while China’s assistance through BRI could help stimulate the Kingdom’s economic growth with essential infrastructure, it would not be sustainable over the long term in the absence of good governance.
“It is possible [to fall into a debt trap] if there are no mechanisms and measures to ensure good governance or enforce the principles of effective and accountable loan management,” he explained.
Meas Ny, a social development researcher, said that despite any risks, it is the correct decision for the Kingdom to accept foreign financial assistance and loans from China at present in order to develop the country, and this has worked because the Kingdom’s infrastructure development has taken off over the past decade.
He said Cambodia’s debt cannot yet be considered a state of emergency even though the government has nearly $10 billion in foreign debts outstanding as of the end of 2022.
Still, Ny cautioned that the Cambodian government would have to remain vigilant about its levels of debt to China due to the high interest rates and to avoid defaulting on it as experienced by Sri Lanka and some African countries.
Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said China’s financial assistance to build infrastructure in Cambodia has had a positive impact and that the government has already taken into consideration the issues with China’s loans and will not fall into the debt trap as some fear.
“With the construction of essential infrastructure under credit assistance from other countries, not just China but any country, the quality, accountability and transparency of the projects as they are planned and underway should be the priorities,” Phea said.
As for foreign policy, he said China’s substantial financial assistance to Cambodia has not had a negative impact on their relations with any other countries as the Kingdom has opened its doors to diplomacy with every country and would always accept investments from all sides.
He noted that when Cambodia objected to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and took a critical stance on it, effectively siding with the EU and US on the issue against Russia and China, it did not seem to cause any tension or strife between Cambodia and China whatsoever, proving that the Kingdom’s foreign policy remained neutral and independent.