[Editor’s Note: In recent years, China’s influence in Cambodia has continued to grow, both in terms of politics and investment. China remains Cambodia’s largest donor and more and more Chinese tourists flock to the country each year. But while the political relationship between the two countries continues to grow in strength, signs of tensions have begun to show as fears over criminal activity circulate. Over the past five years, more than 1,000 Chinese nationals have been arrested in Cambodia and deported. VOA’s Neou Vannarin spoke to Ear Sophal, the co-author of “The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest is Reshaping the World,” about this new trend and what it means for Cambodians.]
VOA: On a recent visit to Cambodia, the head of China’s international cooperation department, Liao Jingrong told his Cambodian counterpart that the government must do more to protect Chinese in Cambodia, a request Prime Minister Hun Sen responded positively to. Is this a reflection of Chinese influence in Cambodia?
Sophal: Sure, it’s a win-win-win-win for China. Excess Chinese capital is invested in Cambodia; no tender or tendered to Chinese (likely state) firms only; these overwhelmingly employ Chinese male construction workers (there are 30 million too many men in China compared to what ought to be gender demographics of that country due to sex-selection), which is win number three; if things go wrong, there can be a debt/equity swap.
VOA: Cambodian debt to China is more than $3 billion. China is also a major investor in Cambodia. Is this a negative or positive thing?
Sophal: I know I use this African proverb too frequently, but it is absolutely true: if your hand is in another man’s pocket, you must walk where he walks. To be overly dependent on anybody, whether it be China or America, is bad. Diversifying is good. Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Cambodia is putting all of its eggs in China's basket.
VOA: There are concerns that Cambodia would become a Chinese’s satellite state, particularly Sihanoukville. What are your thoughts?
Sophal: Absolutely. Chinese casinos are everywhere in Sihanoukville; meanwhile, the sellers on Ochheuteal beach are kicked out. These are Khmer people, the owners of Cambodia. They are not disposable. At the same time, Chinese mafia has arrived to kidnap Chinese investors to the point of alarming the Governor to the point of writing a memo that got leaked and causing the Chinese embassy to encourage Cambodia to enforce local laws. Easier said than done when there is little respect for the rule of law and money speaks when politicians don't.
VOA: Would you compare Cambodia’s situation to other countries in Asia or Africa?
Sophal: I would say Cambodia is far too deep in compared to other Asian and African countries that deal with China. I've used it before, and I'll use it again, Cambodia cannot become a province of China nor a wholly-owned subsidiary. Cambodia must always remain independent and sovereign.
VOA: Hun Sen has argued that Cambodia needs China for its economic and construction workers. Does Cambodia need China to build the country?
Sophal: Sure, but Cambodia can do a lot on its own — why only rely on China? Seventy percent of roads and bridges are courtesy of China for example in recent years. That's insane! Twenty percent of Cambodia's coast to a Chinese company? Twenty percent of Cambodia's debt to GDP ratio to China? In the commercial sector, ghost cities are being created as units are snapped-up and left empty, driving up real estate prices… for Cambodians who can already ill-afford to buy. "Houses are built to be inhabited, not for speculation,” said Xi Jinping. This applies to Cambodia too.
VOA: What is behind the recent upsurge in Chinese nationals flocking to Cambodia?
Sophal: They go to Palau too, and destroy the priceless coral (some of the last unbleached in the world) because they don’t seem to know about conservation. The numbers are so large that it can lead to problems. On our end, we only have one Angkor Wat. And if you think about it, why are they investing on a private level in buying up real estate? Is it money-laundering? We should be careful, as global banks do, to KYC: Know Your Customer. When someone comes into an international bank branch and attempts to deposit $10 million, questions must be asked. Where did this money come from? I hope we are asking those critical questions in the motherland.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.