Cambodia starts to flex its muscles
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Cambodia starts to flex its muscles

The Funan Techo Canal -- a US$1.7 billion (62 billion baht) waterway -- reflects Cambodia's growing confidence and assertiveness in pursuing national interests. This water infrastructure projects Cambodia as a viable and dynamic little tiger, no longer a war-torn nation. Under Prime Minister Hun Manet's leadership, Cambodia is taking a more proactive stance overall despite facing objections from neighbours like Vietnam that stand to bear the direct impact of this naval logistics scheme.

When finished, the 180km waterway -- 100 metres in width and 5.4 metres in depth -- will connect Phnom Penh Autonomous Port with the Kep coastline at the Gulf of Thailand, Currently, Cambodia relies heavily on using Vietnamese ports for maritime transport, notably that of Cai Mep. The new canal would significantly reduce this dependency, as Cambodian ships now can completely bypass Vietnamese territory.

Let us be clear: Vietnam-Cambodia relations are very deeply entrenched, and their top echelons are still very closely connected. Their disagreements and anxiety on any issue can only go so far as they still treasure their brotherly relations. As the Khmer Times' editorial recently put it: The Cambodia-Vietnam relationship exemplifies a resilience and dynamic partnership that has withstood the test of time.

After all, the current Vietnamese leadership worked together in the security and intelligence fields with their Cambodian counterparts under former prime minister Hun Sen's stewardship. He has also witnessed his Vietnamese colleagues rising through the rank and file over the past four decades.

For Vietnam, ties with Cambodia also pivot on its bamboo foreign policy. With a common land and maritime border, both countries need cooperation, not contestation. It is not surprising that new Vietnamese President To Lam is scheduled for a two-day official visit to Cambodia in the coming days after his stopover in the Lao PDR, the current Asean chair.

The $1.7 billion plan, proposed in May, which aims to connect the Mekong River to Cambodia's coast, has stirred up attention and debate. While Cambodia has remained resolute in moving ahead with the canal, Vietnam has expressed concerns over the potential environmental and economic impacts. So far, other lower riparian countries -- Myanmar, Laos and Thailand -- have been mute over the controversy.

As a strategic infrastructure project, the canal will enhance Cambodia's connectivity and reduce reliance on Vietnamese water and ports. Most importantly, it also serves as a signature to former prime minister Hun Sen's legacy. His son, Hun Manet, has described the canal as "breathing through our own nose", reflecting his country's aspirations for greater strategic autonomy.

To reinforce its determination, Cambodia will celebrate the groundbreaking of the construction site this upcoming Aug 5, which is also the birthday of Hun Sen who has asked the citizens to make noise and organise fireworks displays to mark the occasion. He has also requested pagodas to beat drums to celebrate the auspicious ceremony.

Half of the 1.7 billion USD project will be invested by he China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) under a BOT (build-operate-transfer) contract.

Indeed, the timing of the construction announcement is very significant as the nascent Manet cabinet has been trying to make its meaningful traction after Hun Manet assumed the prime minister position in September last year. In addition, Cambodia is charting a new course that is more closely aligned with Western countries while maintaining excellent ties with China, Japan, and South Korea.

The recent visit by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was a case in point. It also signals a shift in US engagement with Cambodia, which has long been neglected due to human rights issues. However, Hun Sen, now President of the Cambodia Senate, is guiding Hun Manet, who graduated from the prestigious US cadet school West Point, to maintain balanced relations with all major powers.

Since the end of the Cambodian War in the late 1970s, the country has risen from the ashes of deadly conflicts. Now, it has new ambitious plans to build a higher middle-income nation with high technological advancement. It has claimed that its financial sector has adopted the full range of fintech to help build the country up as one of the region's financial hubs.

As a lower Mekong riparian country, which controls the southern mouth of the Mekong, Vietnam has repeatedly requested more information and impact assessments, expressing concerns about potential environmental damage and disruptions to water flows. However, Cambodia insists the project will not harm the Mekong. Vietnam's concerns are multifaceted. The country fears the canal could disrupt water flows to the Mekong Delta and its rice basket and impact shipping revenues from trade with Cambodia. In a later case, Phnom Penh argued that given the proximity to Vietnam, its overall economy would benefit from trade, logistics and economic cooperation.

According to Chheang Vannarith, a much-credited political analyst, co-founder and vice-chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, officials from both countries at various leadership levels have discussed and exchanged views on their concerns. Their mutual understanding has improved. He reiterated that this project is a "Cambodian-led" initiative yet thought that the proposed fund of 1.7 billion was too small. Other Cambodian scholars have also rallied behind the plan, but questions remain about long-term feasibility and funding. Additional and diversified funding from local sources and abroad is needed, not just from China.

There are also geopolitical worries, as the canal is near the Ream Naval Base. Vietnam and other countries have raised the issues of China's influence, as it is providing funding. Interestingly, during Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh's recent visit to Beijing, their joint statements pledged to further deepen the China-Vietnam comprehensive strategic cooperation partnership and build a community with a shared future that carries strategic significance. China also pledged to help improve Vietnam's connectivity capacity, especially large-scale transport infrastructure for high-speed trains, railways, roads, and border crossings. These have also been similar requests from Cambodia. At the top level, the common interests among these three countries must be aligned. Both Vietnam and Cambodia support China's concept of a community with a shared future.

To mitigate tensions and reduce any deficit of trust, former Cambodia's secretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry Pou Sothirak, a distinguished senior fellow at the Cambodian Centre for Regional Studies, posited that increased dialogue, sharing of technical details and cross-border cooperation among riparian states is crucial to addressing shared challenges and reducing the potential for future conflicts. He urged Cambodia to work closely with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) -- an "...inter-governmental organisation that works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the Mekong River". Calling in a win-win approach, the MRC can help with the technical inputs and identify potential boundary risks early

As Cambodia flexes its muscles and asserts its ambitions, the canal is a litmus test for Hun Manet's leadership and his country. The project's success or failure could shape Cambodia's regional influence and relations with its neighbours in the coming years and decades.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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