The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development strategy and framework, proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, focused on connectivity and cooperation. It is open to countries across the world and seeks to improve the infrastructure and trade where implemented. This article is not a complete dive into everything the BRI has accomplished in Cambodia, but attempts to highlight many of the largest benefits the country has seen.
Cambodia joined the BRI in 2013, making it one of the first countries to do so, and has seen massive benefits from the projects such as infrastructure growth, production increases, internet access, and electricity availability.
In December of 2021, Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun said, "Through Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian, I'd like to express my heartfelt thanks to the government and people of China for having helped us to build necessary infrastructure, ... the basis for economic growth".
This statement came after construction of a road was completed in the southeastern region of Cambodia. Completion of this road marked over 3,000 km of roads and 8 large scale river bridges that China has helped construct throughout the country.
Cambodian Transport Minister Sun Chanthol said, "The road has not only improved road infrastructure in the two provinces, but also connected them with other provinces. It will ease road traffic, travel for passengers and tourists, and transport of agricultural and agro-industrial products from farms or factories to markets in a faster, more efficient, and less expensive manner.
We wrote about the benefits of transportation infrastructure in our Argentina article - farmers were able to transport more crops further distances and get better prices for them thanks to China’s support improving the rail infrastructure in Argentina. Chanthol is speaking of similar benefits for Cambodia.
In addition to roads and bridges, China has also helped fund and construct seven large hydroelectric dams in Cambodia. These dams produce 50.1% of the electricity in the entire country. Having half of the electricity in the country come from hydroelectric dams allows Cambodia to lower electricity prices, the reliance on importing oil and coal for power also decreases, and saves the country money and allows it to become more self-sufficient.
There are varying numbers from different sources, but about 50% of the population had access to electricity in 2013 when Cambodia joined the BRI. Now, largely thanks to these hydroelectric dams, the percentage is around 90%.
One of the hydroelectric dams is the Lower Sesan II, which is a joint venture between:
Ownership of this dam will be handed to the Cambodian government after 40 years. The dam has benefits beyond just energy production, one of which being that locals will have a completely new career path available to them.
During construction of Lower Sesan II, some families had to be relocated. The relocated families were given an 80 square-meter wooden house and five hectares of farmland by the local government and project company.
Foen Heng, one of the relocated citizens, said, "Now, my family has a steady income and our living conditions are much better … In the old village, we lived from hand to mouth, depending only on rice field and fishing. Life is convenient here because we have good roads, drainage systems, pumping wells, cheap electricity prices, schools, health centers, pagodas and police stations."
Another project that China assisted with is rural water access. Since 2017, the project has built over 1,800 community wells and 130 community ponds across Cambodia as of December 2021.
The number of households with access to clean water increased by over 100,000 in 2020, or an 11.8% increase.
Cambodia launched its first undersea communication cable, the Malaysia-Cambodia-Thailand (MCT) submarine cable in 2017 with help from China. The cable's purpose is to increase internet speed and reliability. At the time about 50% of Cambodia's population had internet access. We found varying numbers for the current percent, but all of them point to an increase.
In addition to infrastructure, China has also helped Cambodia fight COVID-19. China donated 2.2 million doses of Sinopharm as well as medical supplies, equipment, and a vaccine filling factory. As of December 2021, 88.5% of Cambodia was vaccinated. To put these values into perspective, Cambodia had a population of 16.7 million in 2020. This means that the 2.2 million doses could vaccinate 13% of the entire country if each person received one.
The header picture of this article is the Cambodia-China Friendship Preah Kossamak Hospital. Chinese state-owned firm Construction Engineering Corporation and funded largely by China, the building is 11 stories with 400 beds and a helipad. The hospital is public and patients can receive surgery, emergency care, hospitalization, and more services.
"It will importantly contribute to improving the quality of healthcare services and the development of human resources for health in the country. It will not only be a lifesaving facility, but also a venue for training medical students and health officials" Cambodian Health Minister Mam Bunheng said.
Tan Sokun, the director of the hospital, stated that medical fees are cheaper than those charged by overseas hospitals.
This hospital is another example of how Cambodia will be able to reduce its reliance on foreign aid and give new career opportunities to locals.
In 2021, Cambodia set a record for rice exports to China - 300,000 tons. This is an increase of almost 23% from 2020. To show how far Cambodia has come, the export was around 5,000 tons in 2012. Cambodia joined the BRI in 2013. Obviously there are other factors at play, but the improved access to transportation, clean water, electricity, and internet across the country had to have an impact.
Chen Qishen, general manager of the Cambodia branch of China Certification & Inspection Group (CCIC) said, "With strong support from China, Cambodia's rice production and processing industry has made great progress".
Cambodia and China signed a free trade agreement (FTA) that went into effect on 1/1/2022. The FTA is intended to increase the amount of zero-tariff products traded between the two countries to 90%. The Ministry of Commerce believes that the FTA will "help enhance the well-being of enterprises and people of both countries".
Overall, Cambodia has made great strides because of its decision to join the BRI. Transportation, electricity, and internet access have all increased. The construction of seven hydroelectric dams reduces their reliance on foreign powers and gives locals new career opportunities. All these improvements set the country up for continued success and hopefully the relationship with China and the BRI will be maintained and nourished.