Sihanoukville, a once-sleepy city in Cambodia, has become a ballooning enclave for Chinese-run casinos – despite gambling being banned.
As part of the vital trade route for President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road development initiative, the city has become a focal point for Chinese investment. Vast Chinese-run construction projects are visible across almost every area of the city and its high streets are now lined with Chinese businesses and restaurants
Towering skyscrapers and vast domed structures covered in flashing neon signs have already transformed this beach resort beyond recognition, and there seems to be no stopping it.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s willing embrace of Chinese investment, unlike neighbouring countries Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, has ensured Cambodia is at the core of belt and road plans in Southeast Asia.
The Guardian reported that the southern coast of Cambodia is now home to $4.2 billion worth of power plants and offshore oil operations all owned by Chinese companies. Beyond Sihanoukville, belt and road money is financing a new highway to Phnom Penh and a bigger airport in the capital.
Cambodia has also rented 45,000 hectares of its prime real estate in Koh Kong province, including 20% of its coastline, for just US$1 million a year to private Chinese company Union Development Group, to build another tourism Mecca. But as Andrew Nachemson of the South China Morning Post put it, sceptics who say the terms of this deal are too good to be true think there’s another reason for China’s interest. They believe the development is possibly more about welcoming the Chinese military than Chinese tourists.
It should be remembered that after the 29 July 2018 parliamentary election, China was the only major country that declined to join the international criticism of Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, as he ensured he ran effectively unopposed.
Not only had he arrested opposition leader Kem Sokha of the CNRP, which had come close to defeating his party in local elections in 2017, but he later had his sympathetic Supreme Court dissolve the party and ban 118 of its candidates from politics for five years. At the same time, Hun Sen manipulated the close of the English-language newspaper, The Cambodian Daily, for supposedly tax evasion and had a number of Western-affiliated NGOs expelled.
The US then announced a ban on visas for officials “involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia,” and Congress made its annual aid package - worth about $75 million a year - conditional on Kem Sokha’s release and the reinstatement of the CNRP.
The EU created a commission of inquiry to determine whether Cambodia should continue to receive the preferential tariff arrangement that it enjoys as a Least Developed Country, which, if withdrawn, could do great harm to the country’s economy, given the importance of its growing export industries.
Still, it seemed none of this mattered to Hun Sen as China backed his consolidation of power. In fact, during n official visit last year, China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, praised Hun Sen as a “loyal friend” and, according to Cambodian officials, pledged $100 million in aid to Cambodia’s military, thus replacing what the US said they would take away.
No doubt China’s aid and investment have helped Cambodia’s rapidly growing economy, which has undergone seven percent annual growth between 1995 and 2017.
China has reaped political benefits from its investments. In 2012, the year of Clinton’s visit, Cambodia blocked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from opposing China’s claims to the South China Sea. It did so again in 2016, after an international tribunal ruled that China’s claims were invalid and its construction of artificial islands there illegal. In turn, China’s protection of Hun Sen has given him impunity for his increasingly blatant violations of human rights.
So, what is in store for Cambodia and its people, and at what cost, if Sihanoukville is a sign of what is to come?