China Funded 70% of Cambodian Roads, Bridges: Minister

About 70 percent of roads and bridges in Cambodia have been funded by China, with loans for their financing adding up to about $2 billion, government-aligned Fresh News reported the transport minister as saying on Friday.

During a ceremony to accept a donation of mechanical equipment from China, Transport Minister Sun Chanthol said more than 2,000 km of roads across the country and seven major bridges had been constructed with Chinese funds, the website reported.

Ministry spokesman Var Sim Sorya on Monday confirmed the proportion of roads and bridges funded by Beijing, but declined to discuss the overall budget for the loans. The remaining 30 percent of roads were also largely internationally funded, he said, with loans coming from South Korea and Vietnam, among other countries.

But analysts said the heavy reliance on Chinese funding was a cause for concern.

This investment “reflects Cambodia’s ongoing dependency [on] China which has been funding infrastructure projects, the military, and other state agencies of the kingdom for years,” according to Markus Karbaum, a German political scientist with a focus on Cambodia.

“For the Beijing government, this is really an excellent and reasonably priced investment, as it preserves Cambodia’s loyalty on the international stage,” he added.

For nearly six years, Beijing has been the country’s biggest source of foreign funding. Critics have voiced concerns that the investments increase pressure on Cambodia to toe China’s political line, and have pointed to the Cambodian government consistently deporting Taiwanese nationals accused of crimes to mainland China and scuttling various Asean statements related to the disputed South China Sea.

“Cambodia has no choice but to follow the money,” said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia military expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “In the end it is China’s priorities that dictate where the finance goes. The real questions are how does Cambodia repay concessional loans and how does Cambodia pay for road maintenance and repair?”

The ruling party gets “domestic spin offs” by taking credit for the development of the provinces, while Chinese companies are ensured work through the projects and intercountry connectivity is boosted, Mr. Thayer said—in line with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, its regional economic network plan.

He added that the intergovernmental loans were necessary because there was not enough financing available from regional and international financial institutions.

“The demand for infrastructure finance far outstrips the capacity of the Asian Development Bank and other financial institutions to deliver,” he said. “Even with China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the gap between demand and supply will remain.”

Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said that based on previous experience, the quality of the Chinese-funded roads could be questionable.

“[W]ho knows what, if any, environmental impact assessment there is before all this infrastructure goes up. With the World Bank and other Western donors, there are more safeguards,” he said. “[O]nly a couple of years ago, a road the Chinese built went bad within months. Asked why, they said the dirt in Cambodia is different than in China.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Ear said, the “China-Cambodia marriage continues nonpareil.”

(Additional reporting by Thim Rachna and Sek Odom)

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