Foreign Minister Hor Namhong announced yesterday that China has agreed to donate $700 million to facilitate the construction of a railroad between Phnom Penh and the Vietnamese border, one of the missing links in the growing regional railway network.
Cambodia currently represents the largest hole in the proposed Singapore-Kunming Rail Link, a network of refurbished rail lines connecting the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula to China’s Yunnan province that is part of the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity approved at a summit in Hanoi over the weekend.
Mr Namhong said yesterday that China had agreed to pay for construction of a 257-km track from Phnom Penh to Vietnam’s Doung Minh Chau district, which lies across the Mekong from Svay Rieng province.
“In a meeting, Samdech Hun Sen asked Chinese officials to help build the railroad from Phnom Penh to Vietnam with $700 million, and in their consent statement, they said they hoped the money would make it so we could build faster,” said Mr Namhong in his speech yesterday at Phnom Penh International Airport, after returning from the Asean forum in Vietnam.
Mr Namhong stressed that the massive public works project would employ many Cambodian laborers and facilitate the flow of tourists.
“The railroad connection is important to our country because it will employ our workers and then give us good transportation,” said Mr Namhong.
The railroad’s construction is expected to take roughly three years because of difficult terrain, Mr Namhong said yesterday.
Yesterday’s announcement comes on the heels of Prime Minister Hun Sen informing visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday that he would shutter the UN human rights office.
This is not the first time the government has gone public with an announcement of increased Chinese aid in the wake of increased international scrutiny. After the international community roundly condemned Cambodia’s decision to deport 20 ethnic Uighur asylum-seekers to China in December, the government announced it would receive $1.2 billion in interest-free loans from China.
“Whether this pattern is a coincidence or not, this is a strong way to reiterate the close relationship between China and Cambodia,” said political observer Chea Vannath yesterday.
Ms Vannath said that Cambodian leaders for decades have praised aid from China because “it comes with no requirements or strings attached.”
China’s increased presence on the world stage, as a counterweight to the US or the UN, will likely provide an incentive for Cambodian leaders to look increasingly toward China for helping with infrastructure projects like the proposed railway, said Ms Vannath.
According to Paul Power, team leader of the railway restructuring project at the Asian Development Bank, the foreign minister’s announcement came just before the planned release of a Chinese government-sponsored feasibility study of the rail link, which was to be made public later this or next week.
“The Chinese had been very quiet about the study results so far,” said Mr Power, who is helping to supervise an ADB-funded project to reconstruct old rail lines in western and southern Cambodia.
Officials at the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment yesterday on the aid announcement or the feasibility study.
Mr Power said that the link between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City would be especially costly on the Cambodian side of the border because it will require the elevation of long stretches of track.
“I think it might be feasible that it could be completed in five years, but it will require two major bridges, one across the Mekong and a 7 km elevated area nearby over marshland,” said Mr Power.
The Asian Development Bank is providing the Cambodian government with $84 million to finance the reconstruction and repair of the 650 km rail link from Thailand, through Phnom Penh, and south to Preah Sihanouk province.
On Oct 22, a 120 km stretch of refurbished rail opened to freight services operating between Phnom Penh and Kampot province.