Support from an unlikely source has been offered for the Kingdom’s Funan Techo Canal, even as self-exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy released fresh criticism for the project in an online opinion piece.

Journalist David Hutt, a regular contributor of articles to The Diplomat and Radio Free Asia, published a May 10 think piece in which he conceded that the canal is an economic necessity, and not a piece of military infrastructure which will support alleged Chinese expansionism in the region.

The piece, titled “Is Cambodia's Funan Techo Canal The Economic Necessity Phnom Penh Says It Is?” begins with a simple statement.

“If it cuts transport costs, then yes,” he wrote, in answer to his own question.

Hutt is a well-known critic of the Cambodian government, and has been singled out by government leaders in the past for a perceived bias against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

According to Rainsy, writing in a May 11 piece for TGP (The Geopolitics), there is no economic need for the project to be completed.

“It’s clear,” he wrote, “that the real reasons for the canal project are not economic”.

He suggested that the 180km canal – which according to Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chanthol, first vice president of the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), will be built as a public-private partnership through Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) investment by a Chinese company – will give Chinese military vessels access to the Mekong, threatening global stability.

Hutt shared his own opinion on this, arguing that the planned Canal is not a military risk.

“In other words, I doubt that China wants to send its naval vessels up the relatively narrow channel, nor would it be much use if China wants to transport naval hardware all the way down the Mekong, along the canal and then to ships moored off Cambodia …,” he wrote.

He went on to describe the Kingdom’s current reliance on Vietnamese ports, noting that the Cambodian government estimate the canal will reduce that dependency by 70 per cent.

Prime Minister Hun Manet has said the project will mean Cambodia can “breathe through our own nose”.

“Southeast Asian governments are desperate to no longer be reliant on someone else. Clearly, then, it makes sense for Cambodia not to be reliant on Vietnam for access to its ports,” wrote Hutt.

 “So, if the Funan Techo Canal project does go ahead and is completed by 2028 (the government’s projection), shipping should become quicker and cheaper, so good news for importers and exporters. Saving a fifth from transport costs could mean Cambodia’s exports remain competitively cheap if the savings are put onto consumers,” he added.

According to Chanthol, the 180km project will take four years to complete at a cost of around $1.7 billion. It will employ up to 10,000 workers, mostly Cambodian, along with Chinese engineers.

The project will follow the path of an ancient canal which was abandoned more than one thousand years ago, during the Funan era. 

Feasibility studies conducted by the Cambodian government claim that it will consume just 0.053 per cent of the flow of the Mekong River, a figure which contradicts claims by a state-sponsored Vietnamese think tank, which suggested the canal would affect the flow of the Mekong River and increase the salinisation of the Mekong Delta.  

The project will link the coastline at Kep province with the Bassac River, one of the Mekong’s tributaries, providing greater connectivity between the Kingdom’s seaports and manufacturers in the capital and surrounding provinces.