President Xi Jinping’s announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 was widely welcomed by many Asian countries. Studies suggest that there is a significant need of infrastructure development across Asia, including Southeast Asia. According to the ADB Report in 2017, Asia needs at least $8.2 trillion in financing infrastructure investment from 2010 to 2020.
Despite BRI’s significance for Asean connectivity and the development of its member states, there are concerns expressed among scholars and policymakers in the region. First, as the economic size and political power of China have expended tremendously relative to its Southeast Asian neighbours, the growing asymmetry alone worries some in the region. On top of that, maritime disputes in the South China Sea between China and some Asean member states have contributed to growing suspicion in the region that a rising China might not be as benign as Beijing has told the rest of the region. Vietnam is quite reluctant to support BRI.
Second, some Asean member states harbour a concern that BRI might be Beijing’s grand strategy to create a ‘core-to-periphery’ structure of connectivity – China as the hub and other countries the spokes of the system – of which smaller countries have to compromise on their interests and foreign policy autonomy. Even worse, there is a growing perception that as China’s economic clout continues to surge in the region, Asean member states might have to conform to China’s demands at the expense of Asean unity and centrality.
Apparently, the Cambodian government has been very enthusiastic about BRI for a number of reasons. Strategically, unlike other governments in Southeast Asia, the rapid rise of China has convinced the Cambodian government that the future of geopolitics and geo-economics of Asia will be Sino-centric. Therefore, Cambodian leaders want their country to be on the right side of history of the 21st century.
With a strong belief in the future of ‘Pax-Sinica’, Cambodia is one of the first states to express its firm support for BRI. In May 2015, the Cambodian National Assembly ratified an investment proposal of $62.3 million to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, making Cambodia one of the 57 founding members of the bank. From a security perspective, Phnom Penh does not consider China a threat but a potential balancing power against foreign political interference and military threats. Chinese top leaders have, in many occasions, expressed Beijing’s commitment to protect Cambodia’s sovereignty and security.
Economically, Cambodian leaders see an important link between BRI and Cambodia’s economic development. In fact, China’s economic engagement has helped Cambodia to spur economic growth and address deficits in infrastructure, such as access to electricity and rural transportation. In the hydro-electricity sector, China has been the biggest source of investment of more than $3.37 billion in seven projects that produce 1,328 Megawatts as of 2016. For Phnom Penh, China’s investment and support in this sector not only addresses the energy need for rapid economic development of Cambodia but also serves its national security. There has been concern among policymakers in Phnom Penh that the electricity supply from Cambodia’s neighbouring countries can be used as a geopolitical tool against the Kingdom’s interests.
Furthermore, China has also played a leading role in Cambodia’s physical infrastructure development. By the end of 2017, China’s assistance has helped Cambodia to complete the construction of more than 1,500km roads was well as seven important bridges.
Obviously, China is the only partner that has had the wherewithal and resources to invest in the $1 billion to $2 billion type of projects. Other foreign investors, including South Korea, the EU and even Japan, are very much private-sector driven and focus on the commercial sectors.
As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, Cambodian leaders sees BRI as a positive development for a strengthened Asean-China relationship. Prime Minister Hun Sen praised BRI for playing a very important role in providing financial support to developing and facilitating regional connectivity and integration as well as promoting regional stability.
Due to Cambodia’s enthusiastic embrace of BRI, there has been criticism that Phnom Penh could be opening itself up to be a victim of Beijing’s check-book diplomacy or Chinese neo-colonialism. Those comments are for the sole purpose of derailing Cambodia’s development and China’s BRI. Therefore, China and Cambodia must prove these comments wrong. The basic truth is that Cambodia’s success will provide a success story for both BRI and China’s vision of a community of a shared future for mankind.
Moreover, BRI’s success story in Cambodia will further promote Cambodia-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which will serve as a role model of the modern relationship between a great power and a small state based on the principles of equal sovereignty, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.
Cheunboran Chanborey is senior fellow and member of Board of Directors of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI).