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China gains influence with development push into Cambodia

By John Pomfret
Washington Post / December 5, 2010

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KOH KONG, Cambodia — Down a blood-red dirt track deep in the jungles of southwestern Cambodia, the roar begins. Turn a corner and there is the source — scores of dump trucks, bulldozers, and backhoes hacking away at the earth. Above a massive hole, a flag flaps in the hot, dusty breeze. It is the flag of the People’s Republic of China.

Here in the depths of the Cardamom Mountains, where the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge communists made their last stand in the late 1970s, China is asserting its rights as a resurgent imperial power in Asia. Instead of exporting revolution and bloodshed to its neighbors, China is now sending its cash and its people.

At this clangorous hydropower dam site hard along Cambodia’s border with Thailand, and in Myanmar, Laos, and even Vietnam, China is engaged in a massive push to extend its economic and political influence into Southeast Asia. Spreading investment and aid along with political pressure, China is transforming a huge swath of territory along its southern border. Call it the Monroe Doctrine, Chinese-style.

Ignored by successive US administrations, China’s rise in this region is now causing alarm in Washington, which is aggressively courting the countries of Southeast Asia. The Obama administration has cultivated closer ties with its old foe Vietnam. It has tried to open doors to Myanmar, which US officials believe is in danger of becoming a Chinese vassal state. Relations have been renewed with Laos, whose northern half is dominated by Chinese businesses.

In an Oct. 28 speech about US policy in Asia, before embarking on her sixth trip to the continent in two years, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used military terminology to refer to US efforts: “forward-deployed diplomacy.’’

During a recent trip to Phnom Penh — the first by a US secretary of state since 2002 — Clinton, while speaking to Cambodian students, was asked about Cambodia’s ties to Beijing. “You don’t want to get too dependent on any one country,’’ she told them.

Still, China powers ahead.

China has concluded a free-trade deal with all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while a similar US pact is only in its infancy. It is cementing ties with Thailand, a US ally, despite recent political unrest there.

In Cambodia, Chinese firms have turned mining and agricultural concessions in the eastern part of the country into no-go zones for Cambodian police. Guards at the gates to two of them, a gold mine and a hemp plantation, shoo travelers away unless they are able to pay a toll.

“It’s like a country within a country,’’ Cambodia’s minister of the interior, Sar Kheng, quipped at a conference this year.

China’s real estate development firms have barged into Cambodia with all the ambition, obtrusiveness, and verve that American fruit and tire firms employed in Latin America or Africa in decades past. One company, Union Development Group of Tianjin, in northern China, won a 99-year concession for 120 square miles of beachfront on the Gulf of Thailand.

There, Chinese work teams are cutting a road and mapping hotels, villas, and golf courses. The estimated investment? $3.8 billion. The target market? The nouveau riche from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

In October, China pledged to support the construction of a $600 million railway between Phnom Penh and Vietnam that will bring China a major step closer to incorporating all of Southeast Asia, as far south as Singapore, into its rail network.

Across Cambodia, dozens of state-run Chinese companies are building eight hydropower dams. The total price tag for those dams will exceed $1 billion. Altogether, Cambodia owes China $4 billion, said Cheam Yeap, a member of the central committee of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“This takeover is inevitable,’’ said Lak Chee Meng, a reporter on the Cambodia Sin Chew Daily, one of the country’s four Chinese-language dailies, serving 300,000 Khmer-Chinese and an additional quarter-million immigrants and businessmen from mainland China. “Cambodia is approaching China with open arms. It’s how the United States took over its neighborhood.’’

The perennial question about China’s rise is when will Beijing be able to translate its cash into power. In Cambodia, it already has.

Cambodia has avoided criticizing the dams under construction along China’s stretch of the Mekong River, structures that specialists predict will upend the lives of millions of Cambodians who live off the fishing economy around the great inland waterway, Tonle Sap.

Cambodia so strictly follows Beijing’s “one China’’ policy that it has refused Taiwan’s request to open up an economic office here despite the many millions of dollars’ worth of Taiwanese investment in Cambodia.

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