Prime Minister Hun Manet’s second visit to China saw the signing of eight Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the Belt and Road Forum, bringing the total number of agreements to 23 since the middle of September this year.
The eight MoUs signed at the forum, held between October 16 and 19, were related to projects within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) framework, while the 15 MoUs signed last month were aimed at boosting cooperation between the nations.
At the forum, Hun Manet and Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang discussed the direction of their cooperation in varied sectors, such as investment, agriculture, business, education, national defense, health and infrastructure, which fall within the BRI framework.
Over the past 10 years a lot of achievements originated from the cooperation within the framework between Cambodia and China, according to Beijing Communist party secretary Cai Qi. These include the development of the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway, the new Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport and the Phnom Penh-Bavet Expressway.
As of June 30, 2021, China has constructed 3,287 kilometers of road and eight bridges. These projects have been funded by Chinese concessional loans totaling more than $3 billion. The Public Debt Statistical Bulletin for the first quarter of 2023 showed that China represented 40 percent of Cambodia’s total public debt of $10 billion.
“Under the leadership of Hun Manet, the process of building a common destiny for the Cambodia-China community will increasingly be strengthened and further expanded,” he said on his official Facebook page.
During his visit, Hun Manet thanked the Chinese government and expressed his appreciation for both nations’ long-standing bilateral ties. In addition, Chinese officials expressed their support for the Cambodian government’s Pentagonal Strategy.
Accordingly, the visit by Hun Manet, who led the delegation to China for the second time since the seventh government mandate was established in August 2023, is a reflection of Cambodia’s willingness to strengthen cooperation with China. “It is also a continuation of good relations developed by the Cambodian government in the previous mandate,” Hun Manet added.
In a bilateral meeting, Chinese premier Li Qiang agreed to Hun Manet’s request to set 2024 as the year for “people-to-people exchange” on the basis of tourism promotion and connection building between the countries.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said Hun Manet’s participation in the BRI forum reflects strengthened ties in relation to the “One China” policy.
“It isn’t negative. It is good in terms of connecting with China but the benefit that Cambodia gets is limited, as the operators of the BRI communication have yet to see mutual benefits,” he said. “If Cambodia [can] strengthen its relationship [with China], we can also build a stronger relationship with the West such as America and Europe.”
However, the West, Sovannara said, does not prioritize bilateral relations with Cambodia because the latter has not put into practice any of its commitments under the Paris Agreement and Universal Declaration of Human Rights or ensured freedom of democracy.
“The issues that the West mentions involve the lack of political rights and democratic freedom which Cambodia should pay more attention to and practice what it has agreed to,” he said.
Progress of Chinese Investment in Cambodia
In his speech, Hun Manet emphasized that the development of a prosperous and efficient digital economy is largely dependent on the private sector.
“I would like to encourage increased funding for the development of digital infrastructures including connectivity, data centers, security and other digital enablers and platforms in developing countries, particularly through the BRI,” he said.
The trip saw Hun Manet attend various private business meetings to discuss the development of investment projects in Cambodia. He also met with representatives of the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) on October 17 to talk about the Cambodian Railway System Development project. Currently, CRCC has invested $5.3 billion in 53 projects in Cambodia.
China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) also plans to invest $3 billion in Cambodian companies to develop the gas energy industry while China Datang Corporation Ltd has committed to plough in an additional $600 million in solar and wind energy projects.
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce signed MoUs with China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba Group to sell Cambodian products on the platform in the Chinese market and other Asian countries.
Economic analyst Ky Sereyvath told CamboJA that China’s BRI investment in Cambodia in the past 10 years has seen significant infrastructure development and economic growth. Pointing out that Cambodia might face difficulties attracting western investment because it is a “small manufacturing country”, he, nonetheless, urged the government to be cautious and not depend on one country for investment.
“Europe consists of heavily industrialized nations. So, they cannot enter Cambodia since it is a small and developing country. That’s why we should be happy about Cambodia’s growth when [we receive] Chinese investment,” he said.
But, if China stops investing, it can become problematic for Cambodia in the long run, particularly if Cambodia continues to depend solely on China. “The government could be in danger if Chinese investments halt.”
In the meantime, government spokesperson Pen Bona told CamboJA that bilateral trade relations are not equal as it depends on their interest.
“Within international relations, they (countries) think about the interest. If that country has a lot of interests, then they would have a lot of trade relations as well,” he said.
In view of investment and debt, he assured that the government is “very careful” and will not let the country fall into a debt trap.