China is certainly doing a lot in Cambodia, becoming the country’s largest aid donor and source of foreign investment. Between 1994 and 2013, Chinese investment in Cambodia was about US$10 billion, focused mainly on agriculture, mining, infrastructure projects, hydro-power dams and garment production. Since 1992, China has also provided around US$3 billion in concessional loans and grants to Cambodia. This gesture has garnered appreciation from Cambodia’s government.
Excessive dependence on China has also placed Cambodian foreign policy firmly under China’s influence. During a meeting between Chinese and ASEAN ministers over the South China Sea in June 2016, Cambodia joined two other ASEAN nations in refusing to endorse a joint statement criticising China for its construction of military installations in contentious areas in the South China Sea.
Because of China’s influence, Cambodia is reluctant to strongly criticise or protest environmental issues resulting from Chinese policies. Chinese dam building on the upper Mekong River is being tolerated despite potential environmental devastation affecting millions of Cambodians who depend on this water for drinking, irrigation, fishing and sediments that naturally fertilise the land — in short for their food, water, sanitation and, in many instances, their income.
However, the key strategic interest for Cambodia is that its engagement with donors can both deliver infrastructure and the protect human rights and the rule of law. Both Western and Chinese approaches have their benefits. Cambodia’s task is to balance the benefits and obligations of both.