Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 13:58 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 13:58 | SYDNEY

Cambodia: China pervasive, US welcome

25 January 2012 16:24

Even a short visit to Cambodia earlier this month is sufficient to underline why Prime Minister Hun Sen has been so ready over many years to describe China as his country's best friend. Discussion of China's aid to the country is a constant in almost every conversation.

In December 2011 Hun Sen inaugurated a major 103 MW dam at Kamchay in Kampot province built by Sinohydro, one of the largest Chinese construction groups, the latest major infrastructure project built with Chinese assistance at a cost of US$208 million.

In preceding years (and as Hun Sen always insists, 'without strings') Chinese aid to Cambodia has ranged from the construction of a bridge over the Se San River in Stung Treng province, through road construction, to the provision of military vehicles and uniforms for the Cambodia army. In May 2010 alone China committed itself to total aid of US$1.2 billion in grants and loans at a time when a US shipment of military vehicles had been frozen.

With the Kamchay dam completed, there are plans for two more Chinese-built dams in the Cardamom Mountains of Pursat province. Like Kamchay, their construction will be for the generation of hydroelectricity, but unlike Kamchay, the proposed dams will be sited on rivers that eventually flow into the Mekong River system. This raises familiar concerns about the degradation of fish stocks, an issue that has been at the heart of the opposition to the construction of the Xayaburi dam on the Mekong's mainstream.

For the moment, dams on the Mekong's mainstream have been held at bay, but the new environmental battleground is going to be what happens on the Mekong's tributaries. The most contentious proposed dam is not one with Chinese involvement; this is the proposed dam on the Se San River in Stung Treng province, with proposed funding coming from Electricite du Vietnam and the Cambodian conglomerate, the Royal Group.

Arguments for and against each of these projects boil down to whether the generation of hydroelectricity is more important than preserving wild rivers for the fish found in them. So far as the proposed Se Sam dam is concerned, Hun Sen has made his judgment, stating that 'the Se San and Sre Pok Rivers are not the source for fish breeding for fisheries across Cambodia'.

Although China has a 'flavour of the decade' character, there is no doubt the Cambodian Government has hopes for greater American involvement in its economy too.

My travel through Cambodia was in the company of a group of senior American businessmen for whom the Cambodian Government pulled out every stop: a reception in the new Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, the presence of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An at a formal dinner, and to top it all, dinner under the stars by a flood-lit Bayon temple in the Angkor Archeological Park. This was a welcome that went beyond mere courtesy.

Photo by Flickr user chrissusieking.