China-Cambodia Relations

The Cambodia-China connection

China is playing a growing role in Cambodia’s economic development. It has invested over $9.1 billion in Cambodia since 1994, including as much as $1.2 billion in 2011 and $548 million in 2013. This total sum is around eight times more than the aid from the United States, according to the Cambodia Investment Board.

More than half of the Chinese monetary aid has been going towards hydroelectric projects in order to respond to Cambodia’s desperate need for electricity. However, much of it has also been invested in improving infrastructure all across the country particularly in the improvement of roads and bridges. On top of monetary aid, in 2012 China pledged to help restore Angkor Wat, one of Cambodia’s main tourist attractions, sent six naval patrol vessels to Cambodia’s coastal regions to aid in the fight against narcotics and human trafficking, signed multiple trade agreements, and has heavily invested in Cambodia’s garment industry.

In return Prime Minister Hun Sen has pledged his support to the “one China” policy, which opposes any form of independence for Taiwan. However, critics believe that Cambodia’s support goes beyond this. Many believe China’s aid has purchased Cambodia’s loyalty within ASEAN. China does not only hope to get access to the Gulf in order to respond to the growing demand of oil, but also to strengthen its ties with one of Vietnam’s biggest rivals.

foreign aid to cambodia

China’s aid has been highly criticized by the West, because it appears to be coming as a blank check or as with ‘no strings attached’. However, requirements attached to Western aid require Hun Sen to reform controversial aspects of his government such as corruption issues, human rights abuses and much more. Naturally, Hun Sen has started to view China as its most trustworthy friend over the United States and has been receiving the aid with open arms.

It can be assumed that within all the aid there lies a hidden agenda, which has serious social and political implications. China clearly dictates how the aid should be used; this, many believe, weighs heavy influence on Cambodia’s autonomy.

Controversial hydropower projects, such as the Kamchay hydropower plant in the Bokor natural reserve, have destroyed biodiversity and diminish the importance of protected areas.  On top of that come accusations that China has been exploiting Cambodia’s garment industry by supporting the abuse of worker’s rights, which has fueled recent protests in the capital (discussed further below).

As previously mentioned China has also extended its political influence in Cambodia. In 2009, 20 ethnic Uyghur asylum seekers were promptly deported back to China upon Beijing’s request. Two of the asylum seekers received life in prison and little is known about the rest. Cambodia also refrained from discussing the South China Sea disputes during the ASEAN summit, which has received equal criticism and was by many seen as a clear indication of China’s plans with Cambodia.

Due to the fact that China has also been declared Cambodia’s most trustworthy friend, Chinese investment has been favored. The Cambodian Center For Human Rights estimates that 50 percent of the land concessions granted since 1994, which total around 4.6 million hectares, were all given to Chinese companies. Currently this land is used for mining, hydropower, agriculture, but also as many believe for illegal logging. Given China’s record with destruction of biodiversity and current pollution problems the worries are increasingly high.

Overall, it is clear that Cambodia is in dire need of China’s aid and that the sum of $9.1 billion has definitely had a positive impact on Cambodia’s economy. However, China’s controversial nature of this aid has been, rightfully so, criticized not only by human rights groups, but also by the international community. It is one of the many things that seem to be skewed about the Khmer government.

China’s upstream Mekong dams and impacts on Mekong hydrology in the Tonle Sap 

Thus far China’s plans concerning the Greater Mekong Subregion have prioritized economic development, international trade promotion and investment across borders. For the Mekong River this means dams and the abundance of hydropower they produce. China has already built a number of dams on the upper Mekong and many more are in the planning process. The Lower Mekong has also been dammed, but not the extent of the Upper reach. Not surprisingly, this has been done without the consultation of the Mekong River Commission or other countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion, which because of their downstream location, will feel the majority of the impacts caused by the dam. Cambodia is located at the southernmost point of the Indochinese Peninsula, and the lowest part of the Mekong flows through it before entering a thin section of Vietnam and then the South China Sea. Because of this Cambodia feels all of the upstream actions on the Mekong acutely in terms of changing flow patterns, water levels, and fish populations.

The impact is felt even more strongly because of the high dependence the Cambodian people have on fish consumption. In fact, 80% of the protein consumed in Cambodia comes from fish. A major concern is the Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia and located in central Cambodia, that provides the nation with 60% of its fish.

Village life on the Tonle Sap

Village life on the Tonle Sap

The Tonle Sap relies on an annual backflow of the river that floods the area into surrounding forests where many fish species spawn. However, altered flow patterns have changed this phenomenon and the results are already being noted in terms of reduced fish biodiversity and annual yields. It is estimated that the change in flows and resultant change in the Tonle Sap flood pattern could result in up to a 42% loss in fish catches representing 880,000 tons of fish. Further alteration of the Tonle Sap ecosystem, which will occur if damming is continued, will be disastrous for the Cambodian people who rely on the lake for income and food. It is estimated that half of the Cambodian population relies on aquatic resources extracted from the Tonle Sap’s.

Confronted with this threat Cambodia is also faced with the possibility of significant benefits from damming in terms of hydropower and revenue from the sale of power to neighboring states. The Cambodian government must decide which is more valuable in terms of river development plans. Unfortunately, whatever the government decides, Cambodia will be subjected to the consequences of dams built by Laos and China built in the upstream Mekong watershed.


A fisherman on Lake Tonle sap displays the day's catch.

A fisherman on Lake Tonle sap displays the day’s catch.

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