Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Hun Sen Denies Funan Techo Canal Will Facilitate Chinese Military Access Near Vietnam Border

Fishers catch fish along the Mekong River near the Prek Takeo stream that will be affected by the Funan Techo Canal project, in Kien Svay district, Kandal province on March 1, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Fishers catch fish along the Mekong River near the Prek Takeo stream that will be affected by the Funan Techo Canal project, in Kien Svay district, Kandal province on March 1, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Former Prime Minister and Senate President Hun Sen dismissed the idea that the Techo Funan Canal will facilitate Chinese Naval activity closer to the Vietnamese border in a Facebook post Tuesday, following an article from Singapore’s Straits Times citing concerns from two researchers at a Vietnam state-backed institute.

Hun Sen also took issue with recent coverage of the presence of Chinese warships at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in December 2023 and March 2024, calling the reports “slanderous” without specifying what he believed to be false about the coverage. 

“Following a series of slanderous reports about the presence of Chinese troops at the Ream naval base, they now fabricate the story of the Techo Funan Canal, which falsely mentions that the canal will further facilitate the Chinese navy near the Vietnamese border even when the canal is still under construction,” he wrote.

On Friday, the Straits Times published an article with the headline: Vietnamese concerned that canal project in Cambodia could be potential gateway for Chinese forces. The story includes an excerpt from a March 2024 journal article written by Dinh Thien and Thanh Minh, researchers with the Vietnam state-backed Oriental Research Development Institute. 

The researchers posit that the canal could allow Chinese ships to approach the Cambodia-Vietnam border, giving the project great military value that will strongly impact the defense and security situation in the region.

The Chinese state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation was contracted to conduct the feasibility study for the canal project. Cambodia plans to start construction on the $1.7 billion Chinese-funded project in 2024 and complete construction by 2028.  

“Why would Cambodia bring Chinese troops into its country, which violates the constitution?” Hun Sen asked in his post. “And why would China bring its troops to Cambodia, which is contrary to the principle of respect for Cambodia’s independence?” 

He cited Article 53 of the Constitution, which prohibits Cambodia from having foreign military bases on its territory, and Article 55, which prohibits treaties incompatible with Cambodia’s independence, as making it “clear that no agreement can be implemented if it is not in line with Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty.”

A spokesperson for Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Ream Naval Base, situated on the Gulf of Thailand, has been at the center of a geopolitical controversy in the last few years. U.S. officials have expressed concerns since 2019 about an alleged deal between Cambodia and China that would grant China’s military exclusive access to part of the base. Cambodian and Chinese officials have repeatedly denied the U.S. claims. Ream previously had U.S.-funded installations that were demolished in 2020.

Political commentator Ro Vannak told CamboJA News that while the canal will serve Cambodia’s economic growth, modernization, and water transportation, the project could be seen as a threat by Vietnam.

“Vietnam may have a different view from Cambodia in that it [the canal] could affect Vietnam’s security interests because it is believed that China is the power behind the construction of the canal,” he said. 

In his view, Cambodia has already explained that the canal is being built for economic and transport reasons, not for the geopolitical interests of any country.

“I think it is Cambodia’s right to decide to build this canal for the benefit of the economy; however, it does not escape the suspicions of Vietnam, which seems to lose out in its interests because of this canal,” he added.

When asked for further comment from the Cambodian government, spokesperson Pen Bona replied in a Telegram message, “What Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] wrote is enough, nothing more to add. In the past, Samdech Thipadei [Hun Manet] also explained the benefits of this canal.” 

The President of the Royal Academy of Cambodia Sok Touch offered his opinion in a comment on Hun Sen’s post. 

“If Cambodia had a canal, Vietnam could not control Cambodia’s exports and imports and could not charge extra for transit through Vietnam and Vietnamese investors would find it difficult to compete with other investors,” Touch said. “We can conclude that Vietnam has used the US strategy to strangle Cambodia, a long comprehensive partner.”

Statements from the Cambodian government have claimed that the canal will greatly improve the country’s economy as well as the regional inland waterway network. But locals worry about losing their homes and livelihoods, and environmental experts warn of potentially major impacts on wetlands and habitats of endangered species. 

The Cambodia National Mekong Committee claimed there will be minimal social and environmental effects and “no significant impact on the Mekong River system’s daily flow and annual flow volumes” in an August document notifying the Mekong River Commission of plans for the canal. 

Mov Sarin, a motorcycle taxi driver and ex-soldier who lives beside the Prek Takeo stream, the first connecting point of the Funan Techo canal, told CamboJA News Wednesday that he still has not gotten any information about the canal from the authorities. Residents report a lack of information from the government, and a desire for clarity on compensation if they are forced to relocate. 

The spokesperson at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, Phan Rim, said in a Telegram message that he did not have any information yet about when the citizens along the stream will be given information.