Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang has announced a series of large aid packages to Cambodia at the end of his first visit to the country this week as Cambodia turns further away from Western donors.
A total of 19 agreements were signed to fund large-scale infrastructure projects including seaports, expressways and an airport.
Li was in Cambodia from Wednesday for a Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit of Southeast Asian leaders and China.
China will fund a 190-kilometer expressway connecting Phnom Penh to the country’s coastal city of Sihanoukville, where there is a dramatic surge of Chinese investment in real estate and construction.
Both sides also reached an accord to invest in a seaport in Preah Sihanouk province’s Stung Hav district and a new airport in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia oversaw the arrival of 5.6 million tourists in 2017, 1.2 million of whom came from China, according to Tourism Minister Thong Khon, as quoted by the government-friendly news outlet Fresh News.
China also offered help to Cambodia in other sectors, including technological exchanges, education, cultural heritage conservation, product standardization, forestry, agricultural modernization, and energy and telecommunications capacity expansion.
By October last year, China was top of the list of Cambodia’s biggest sources of investment, having spent about $12.57 billion, some 36.4 percent of Cambodia’s total foreign direct investment, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.
China has also been the main supporter of the increasingly authoritarian rule of long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen amid an intensifying crackdown on dissent, including the dissolution of the country’s main opposition party and arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha.
Cambodia has accused the United States of allegedly backing Sokha’s party to plot a popular uprising to unseat the 39-year rule of Hun Sen’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party. The U.S. and the European Union withdrew their support and questioned the legitimacy of the forthcoming July parliamentary election.
According to the joint communiqué issued at the conclusion of Li’s visit, Cambodia and China said they share a vision to “build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation.”
Cambodian political commentator Lao Monghay said he is concerned by the enormous amount of aid, suggesting that Cambodia’s “over-reliance” on China would send the country’s foreign policy further into an “imbalanced” future, citing the decline of Cambodia’s relations with the West in recent months.
“I think the [Cambodian] government should take a neutral, non-aligned stance by also keeping good relations with all the countries in line with the constitution and the Paris Peace Agreement. It should stop verbal attacks on others” like the U.S. and the E.U., Monghay said.
A spokesman for the Cambodian government could not be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon. But CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Li’s visit signaled a “still strong relationship” between the two countries, which was moving towards a “timeless future.”
“Cambodia engages in friendship, solidarity, and cooperation with the other [countries], standing on the basis of equity and equal rights – with no discrimination ... But we just demand a foundation of no discrimination, no interference in our internal affairs,” Eysan said.
“China is a country of 1.5 billion people, but they treat a 15 million population country like Cambodia based on equality and equal rights without any problems on either side.”
Cambodia and China mark their 60th year of diplomatic ties this year.