Doung Bosba tries to debunk myths about China in Cambodia.
Cambodian ruling elites are China-educated
Wrong. None of the current Cambodian ministers are China-educated. In fact, most of them are Western educated. Their offspring are also mostly or wholly Western educated.
The number of alumni speaks for itself. The Fulbright and Undergraduate State Alumni Association of Cambodia (FUSAAC) has more than 1,000 members. Australian Alumni Association of Cambodia has over 700 members and Japan Alumni of Cambodia registered more than 1,000 past recipients of Japanese scholarships. As of now, the fact that around 1,000 Cambodian students studied in China does not mean that they are controlling the whole educational aspect of Cambodia.
According to data entitled “Global Flow of Tertiary-level Students” of Unesco in 2017, Thailand was the top destination with 1,031 Cambodian students, followed by Australia (908), United States (560), Vietnam (432), France (431) and Japan (397). China was not even on the list.
Cambodia is benefitting from trade with China
Wrong. Cambodia has never relied on trade with China. Trade with China has always been a deficit for Cambodia. The trade volume between Cambodia and China was valued at $5.8 billion in 2017 and Cambodia’s exports to China has not even reached $1 billion, making the trade deficit for Cambodia larger than 80 percent vis-à-vis China.
While in 2018 China agreed to increase Cambodia’s rice import quota to 300,000 tonnes, a deal was struck in 2014 that China would annually buy one million tonnes of Thai rice for five years.
Vietnam who is China’s strategic rival is actually one of the leading trading partners in Southeast Asia. In 2017, Vietnam-China bilateral trade stood at $93.69 billion.
There is a Khmer saying that goes, “you get angry with the cow but you hit the cart.” In this case, when the EU is displeased with China’s influence in Cambodia, and assumes that Cambodia is too much reliant on China, they instead decide to kill Cambodian jobs by introducing measures aimed at cutting down EU–Cambodia trade.
Cambodian ports are being controlled and militarised by China
Wrong. Some foreign pundits even mix up between two coastal provinces of Cambodia, namely Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong provinces.
If this myth is aimed at Sihanoukville port, which is the only deep-water seaport in Cambodia, it is grossly wrong because technically speaking Sihanoukville Autonomous Port is almost under Japanese control. Japan has provided support to Sihanoukville Port for a long time. Starting with the 1999 Sihanoukville Port Urgent Rehabilitation Project, which was the first Japanese loan to Cambodia, JICA has provided continuous support for infrastructure and operations capacity building at the port through loans, grant aid and technical cooperation.
Japanese investors also hold the biggest percentage of shares in the Port’s public offering. More than 60 percent of the shares in the IPO were bought up by two Japanese institutional investors, one of them being the Japan International Cooperation Agency or JICA. National investors now control 35.57 percent of the issued shares after the IPO, while foreign investors hold 64.43 percent – the largest of which was JICA.
As for another sea port at Koh Kong Province, it is being developed by China’s Tianjin Union Development Group (UDG) as part of its $3.8 billion Dara Sakor Beachside Resort project.
Asia Times and the Southern China Morning Post have been publishing articles insinuating militarisation of the port. As the saying goes, “Repeat a lie a thousand times and it becomes the truth.” Is it really true? Firstly, logically speaking, if it is a military port, it has to be under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Defence. This means that, to become a militarised port, Cambodia needs to nationalise that private investment, which is definitely not a smart move for any pro-investment country. Secondly, if it is a deep sea port, it is generally an acceptable practice to receive military ships, which are not permanently based, on account of friendship promotion or even business service provision.
Take for instance, the operation of Logistics Group Western Pacific (COMLOG WESTPAC) and Navy Region Center Singapore (NRCS) in Singapore. According to a Naval Today article published on August 9, 2012, “While no US base exists in Singapore, the US Navy presence here dates back several decades and the Navy leases facilities from the Singaporean government. Today, the US military community in Singapore includes active duty, civilian personnel and family members, distributed among 15 commands.
“COMLOG WESTPAC was established at the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), Sembawang Terminal, in July 1992…. Established in 2007, NRCS provides administrative support to nine Navy, Army, Air Force and Joint commands in Singapore. It also manages 165 family and bachelor housing units and dozens of command, administrative and warehouse facilities.
“Additionally, COMLOG WESTPAC is 7th Fleet’s Theater Security Cooperation agent for Southeast Asia, promoting military-to-military relations and coordinating exercises such as Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training.”
If the Asia Times and the South China Morning Post are anticipating that Cambodia is planning to provide such support to China like what Singapore is doing for the US, in terms of capacity, manpower and logistics, they are wrong. Cambodia is no way comparable to Singapore and still has a very long way to go. Since the colonial era, Cambodia has never been a major seaport. Most importantly, as an integral part of its foreign policy, Cambodia has never aspired to host a foreign military base regardless of foreign twisted perception.
Cambodia is providing privilege to Chinese investors
Wrong. Investment in Cambodia is not nationally labeled. The case in point is the comparison between two special economic zones with a similar name, Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) and Sihanoukville Port Special Economic Zone (SPSEZ).
SSEZ has been jointly developed by Chinese and Cambodian enterprises. Established in 2008, SSEZ boasts more than 100 predominantly Chinese enterprises, making it the biggest and most active SEZ in the country both in terms of size and occupancy. More than 16,000 people are employed in the industrial park. SSEZ is trying to attract 300 enterprises and grow to a total of 70,000 to 80,000 workers within the next five years.
On the contrary, SPSEZ which is being developed by the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port Authority of Cambodia is just hosting three companies since the start of operations in 2012. The $33 million loan for building the SPSEZ came from Japan. The government is relying on Japanese expertise which in turn has set high ethical and environmental standards for investors. The harsh reality is that there is little interest among Japanese investors.
While Cambodia owes Japan money, it cannot force Japanese or other foreign investors to come if they are not interested. And Cambodia does not owe China a dime for developing the SSEZ.
Doung Bosba is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh