The Cambodia Conundrum: The Belt and Road, private capital and China’s “non-interference” policy

By Mark Grimsditch

Since the early 2000s, Chinese overseas investment has been driven by its formidable state machinery, financed by policy banks and developed in large part by state-owned enterprises (SOEs). China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continues this trend, and the export of a development formula dominated by state capital is a key feature of the initiative. However, China’s private capital, though historically much smaller in comparison to state players, is increasingly active overseas and is now participating in and shaping the BRI, influencing China’s diplomatic and economic involvement in those countries. In some countries, public perception of the BRI is heavily influenced by private investments from China. If state capital signals China’s strategic intentions for the Belt and Road, private capital points to its economic vitality and the complex motivations behind the controversial initiative.

Cambodia is a case in point.

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A Belt and Road poster in Phnom Penh, photo by Mark Grimsditch

Investment in Cambodia is increasing rapidly, with Chinese capital surging in recent years into the manufacturing, construction, real estate and tourism industries. This investment has generated employment and contributed to Cambodia’s continued rapid economic growth, while state-backed finance has strengthened the country’s previously fragile infrastructure. Yet this has also generated significant concern. Chinese companies have over the past decade been connected to a number of high-profile controversial projects, some of which have been linked to land conflicts, displacement of local communities and environmental harms. Over the past three years, a surge in the number of private Chinese investors has created unease among local people.

While the China-Cambodia diplomatic relationship has gone from strength to strength in recent years, Cambodia’s relations with the US and Europe became increasingly fraught in the aftermath of the controversial 2013 general elections. While China has unsurprisingly remained silent on these issues, the European Union is now in the process of considering the withdrawal of crucial trade preferences. A withdrawal is likely to have a massive impact on Cambodia’s garment industry, which is dominated by private Chinese actors and deeply intertwined with companies producing materials in China. As a result, China may now find itself in the uncomfortable position of maintaining adherence to the “non-interference” policy while also ensuring that the conditions stay in place for the industrial expansion that are a central focus of Chinese state and private capital flowing into the country.

The scale of Chinese investment in Cambodia

Chinese investment accounted for 23% of all foreign investment in Cambodia during the 2000-2017 period, making it by far the largest foreign investor. Statistics from China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) illustrate the formidable influx of Chinese investment to Cambodia. Starting at less than US$30 million in 2003, officially recorded investment from mainland China exceeded US$744 million in 2017.


Source: Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China (2018)

Even though Cambodia was an early backer of the BRI, announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, Chinese investment in Cambodia has fluctuated since, due in part to uncertainty around the contested 2013 national elections, which were followed by almost a year of unrest. After stabilizing in around 2015, investment began to climb again in 2016, at a similar rate to that prior to the existence of the BRI. Concessional loans from China’s Eximbank, which mostly support public infrastructure works, also fell from 2013 and have since resumed pre-BRI rates of growth.

In Cambodia, there is a relatively clear distinction between where Chinese state funding and private investments are going. Concessional lending has supported major infrastructure works such as roads, bridges, power plants and irrigation projects, which are almost exclusively developed by Chinese SOEs. Private companies, on the other hand dominate the manufacturing, tourism and real estate sectors.

The tidal wave of Chinese private investment

In the late 2000s to early 2010s, much of China’s private investment was directed towards large-scale agriculture projects. This was facilitated by Cambodia’s investment-friendly economic land concession (ELC) mechanism, through which domestic and foreign investors could receive up to 10,000 hectares for agro-industrial plantations and processing facilities. Analysis of official documents shows that out of 273 concessions known to have been granted up to 2018, 15% were registered to Chinese companies, with Vietnamese companies holding 19%.


Source: Licadho (2018)

The ELC system became notorious for its links to land conflict and deforestation, with villagers evicted from residential properties, agricultural lands seized and converted to private plantations, waterways diverted and polluted, and indigenous communities cut off from their ancestral lands. Various concession holders came into conflict with local people, including companies from China, such as Hengfu Group, a private company from Guangzhou, and holder of the largest sugar concession in Cambodia, which has been embroiled in conflict with local communities for over 5 years.

Conflicts around ELCs and the animosity that land encroachment and seizures created among the Cambodian population eventually led to a moratorium on the granting of new concessions in 2012 and a review of existing concessions found to be in breach of the law. This moratorium has held, and while a number of Chinese concessions have been developed, anecdotal evidence indicates that many investors abandoned or sold their concessions. Although many concessions were not developed as planned, communities were nonetheless impacted by the privatization of lands and forests that they previously utilized, as they were left cleared of forest, passed on to new investors, or reclaimed by the state.

The rapid rate at which Chinese private finance poured into these large-scale plantations, and the rate at which these concessions were then abandoned or sold is indicative of a key feature of this type of private capital: it is often speculative and sensitive to recipient country opportunities, risks and changing circumstances. Chinese investment is not unique in the sense that it responds to opportunities and risks in the same way as all private capital does. As the risks associated with these investments increased, large-scale agroindustry became a lower priority for Chinese companies. Instead of investing directly in plantations, Chinese companies are now focusing on smaller farm investments and trade in agricultural commodities, which removes investors somewhat from direct exposure to land conflicts with local communities. The bulk of Chinese private investment has now shifted from large land-intensive projects towards manufacturing, real estate, tourism and casinos, industries connected closely to a rising and more mobile Chinese middle class.

Hand in glove: The state-private nexus

China’s state capital often relies on the private sector to help achieve developmental goals such as creating manufacturing jobs in recipient countries, and SOEs also benefit from contracting work on private invested projects. Cambodia provides a useful example of how China’s state capital and private interests intertwine overseas. Although investment in real estate is driven by private investors, in many cases construction work is sub-contracted to some of China’s largest SOEs. For example, the logo of China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC), one of the largest construction companies in the world, is ubiquitous across Cambodia’s capital and Sihanoukville, where the company provides construction services for many private property developers.

Nowhere is the symbiotic relationship clearer than in the manufacturing sector of Preah Sihanouk Province. Sihanoukville, the provincial capital, has become a magnet for Chinese investors, and the sprawling property, tourism and casino projects have received extensive media coverage. However, the role of state-supported Chinese capital in the industrialization of the province has received much less attention.

Through China’s aid program, the Eximbank has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in concessional loans for a number of high-voltage transmission lines across Cambodia. Several of these projects were constructed by state-owned China National Heavy Machinery Corporation (CHMC), including new powerlines linking Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, which pass by a number of Chinese invested power and manufacturing projects, including coal plants located along the coast.

One such coal plant is developed by a joint venture of Cambodia International Investment Development Group (CIIDG), a local company owned by a powerful ruling party senator, and Erdos Hongjun, a private company from Inner Mongolia. Once fully operational the plant will have a capacity of 700 MW and a dedicated line connecting to the Sihanoukville SEZ to ensure stable power to the factories there. This is the largest SEZ in the country, and once again, is a joint venture involving CIIDG and another private Chinese conglomerate, Hongdou Group, specialized in garment manufacturing. It began development in 2008, and despite pre-dating the Belt and Road by five years, it is referred to by the Cambodian and Chinese officials as a model cooperation project under the BRI.

Aside from this major SEZ, Chinese state-financed power and transport infrastructure runs by at least three other joint Cambodian-Chinese economic zones. This includes the Stung Hav SEZ, which in 2018 signed a cooperation agreement with state-owned Metallurgical Corporation of China. The recently commenced Eximbank financed Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway will also pass by this cluster of SEZs en route to Sihanoukville City. Beyond these specific projects, China has also supported the development of feasibility studies for new railways, and state-owned giant China Merchants Group has commenced a study to develop a masterplan for Cambodia’s port development.

This chain of projects illustrates how Chinese state and commercial interests can align, with expensive state-backed infrastructure investments opening opportunities to promote Chinese enterprises to go global, in the process exporting industrial capacity and taking advantage of lower operating costs. This serves Chinese commercial interests, as companies gain access to new markets and bases for global production at a time when domestic economic growth is slowing, but also potentially feeds into Cambodia’s industrialization process, which in the medium-term seeks to diversify away from low-tech manufacturing.

China and the “Everything But Arms” conundrum

A central motivation for private Chinese companies such as Hongdou Group to establish industrial bases in Cambodia is to access the preferential trade schemes that Cambodia benefits from as a lower income country.

Since the early 2000s, Cambodia has maintained annual GDP growth of around 7% (with the exception of the dip experienced during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis). This growth is fueled by Cambodia’s export economy, the backbone of which is Cambodia’s garment and footwear industry. In 2018 the sector employed an estimated 800,000 workers and accounted for 74% of the country’s exports. Chinese owners account for the largest share of Cambodia’s garment factories. Although exact figures are hard to come by, almost 70% of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) members are from the Greater China region: 249 from mainland China, 111 from Taiwan and 60 from Hong Kong. Membership statistics from 2008 show how rapidly mainland Chinese companies have come to dominate the industry.


Source: GMAC (2008, 2019)

The European Union’s Everything But Arms (EBA) and the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) are two major trade schemes that Cambodia’s export oriented economy benefits from. Both provide tariff free market access to products made in Cambodia, and manufacturers of garments, footwear and accessories have been a major beneficiary. In 2017, Europe accounted for 46% of these exports, followed by the United States with 24%.

In October 2018, the European Trade Commissioner took the drastic step of announcing that it was sending an emergency high-level mission to review the situation in Cambodia with regards to what it termed “a clear deterioration of human rights and labour rights”. This followed on from EU missions to the country that observed “serious and systemic violations” of freedom of expression, labour rights and freedom of association, in addition to long-running concerns regarding workers’ rights and land-grabbing. In February 2019, the Commission announced it had commenced the temporary withdrawal of EBA status from Cambodia. Following on from this, the US Congress introduced the Cambodia Trade Act of 2019, which called for a review of Cambodia’s GSP status. Under the GSP, tariff free trade was introduced for luggage, backpacks, handbags and wallets, which contributed to a 25% increase in Cambodia’s trade with the U.S. in 2018.

Several of those interviewed for this article suggested that EBA withdrawal would benefit China by bringing Cambodia closer into its orbit. However, given the extent to which Chinese companies are embedded in Cambodia’s export-oriented manufacturing sector, these developments are likely to be a serious concern to China. A large percentage of Cambodian exports to Europe and the U.S. are produced by Chinese-owned companies. Moreover, companies in mainland China could also lose a lucrative export market. For the most part, Cambodian garment factories follow the “cut-make-trim” model, assembling products using materials, machines and designs that are imported from overseas. Mainland Chinese companies supply the textiles and other materials to producers based in Cambodia, and the bulk of China’s export to Cambodia is fabric and other materials destined for the garment industry.

To illustrate the extent to which this is likely to impact on Chinese investments in Cambodia, we can look again to the Sihanoukville SEZ case. At present the SEZ operators claim to employ over 22,000 workers in approximately 160 factories, aiming to increase this to 100,000 workers across 300 factories by 2020. The vast majority of tenants in the SEZ are private Chinese companies focusing on light-industry manufacturing, including garments, footwear, bags and leather goods. Among the “investment advantages” touted by the operators of the SEZ is Cambodia’s “favorable trade status”. Referring to European Union regulations, the SEZ operator states that “one of the most important conditions” is that there are no restrictions on the sources of materials, meaning that garments produced in Cambodia using fabrics from China can enjoy tariff-free preferential access to the EU market. This will end if the EU withdraws Cambodia’s EBA status.

The withdrawal process could take up to 18 months, and can be stopped, if the EU deems sufficient progress has been made in addressing the human rights concerns it has highlighted. In the meantime, it remains unclear how Beijing is responding, specifically, if it is adhering to the rhetoric of “non-interference” and observing as the situation plays out, or if it is making any behind the scenes interventions.

In April, Cambodian officials claimed they have the full support of China. On the sidelines of the second Belt and Road Forum in April, Prime Minister Hun Sen met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and claimed that the premier promised to support Cambodia should EBA status be withdrawn. Later that month, Hun Sen met politburo member Wang Huning, and Cambodian state media reported that Wang said China had studied the issue and found no serious impacts, and that it will find “different ways” to help Cambodia. China broke its silence on the issue in June, with a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasizing the principle of non-interference and stating that China would support Cambodia “in resisting any intimidation or force from the West”.

Despite these public statements and apparent attempts from Cambodia to play down the impacts of an EBA withdrawal, voices of concern are widespread. Cambodia’s National Bank, the World Bank, the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia, the European, Nordic and British Chambers of Commerce, and major clothing brands that purchase products from Cambodia, have all warned of the potentially momentous impacts that EBA withdrawal could have on export-focused industries and the people they employ. The simple reality is that Chinese companies that have established production bases in Cambodia benefit hugely from these preferential trade schemes, and without them could face major losses. While China could provide additional loans and development assistance to Cambodia, it is not an alternative destination for Cambodian garment exports, and is unlikely to subsidize the over $650 million annual loss that the World Bank estimates could hit the sector if EBA is withdrawn.

In the midst of the US-China trade war, Cambodia’s strategic value as an overseas production base could become increasingly important to China. Given the massive investment that the Chinese state and state-owned entities have put into infrastructure supporting the development of Cambodia’s export-driven economy, these developments will surely be followed closely in Beijing.

If China is to continue to support the industrialization and expansion of Cambodia’s export economy, in which Chinese private interests are now deeply embedded, it may have difficult decisions to make in the coming years, and a more nuanced approach to the sacred non-interference policy may be in order – with potentially interesting implications for ongoing human rights concerns in Cambodia.

Mark Grimsditch is director of the China Global Program at Inclusive Development International. The program monitors trends in Chinese overseas investment and supports civil society groups and networks to develop the knowledge and tools necessary to increase social and environmental accountability of overseas projects.

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