News / Asia

Cambodia's $11 Billion Mystery

A man rides a motorcycle past a signboard for the Cambodia Iron Group at the Rovieng District in Preah Vihear province, February 10, 2013.
A man rides a motorcycle past a signboard for the Cambodia Iron Group at the Rovieng District in Preah Vihear province, February 10, 2013.
Reuters
The remote district of Rovieng was once a battleground between Cambodian government troops and Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge. Unexploded bombs still lurk in its fields and forests.

So does something more desirable - iron ore - and supposedly in such huge quantities two Chinese companies have an $11 billion plan to extract it.

Their proposal - a steel plant and seaport linked by a 404-km (251-mile) railroad - has alarmed environmentalists, mystified mining and transport experts, and bolstered Cambodia's reputation as an agent for Chinese expansionism in a region where the United States is increasingly competing for influence.

It is the latest in a series of mega-projects underscoring China's growing economic clout in mainland Southeast Asia, while improving China's access to supplies of raw material and ports in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Work will soon begin on a $7 billion railway through Laos to  link China's Yunnan province with northeast Thailand. And in Burma work is almost finished on a $3 billion twin pipeline project to carry oil and gas to Yunnan from Burma's Bay of Bengal coast.

The railway, port and steel project will be Cambodia's largest, with a price tag not far off the value of the country's $12.9 billion economy. The steel plant in Rovieng, in northern Cambodia, will be its first. The seaport on a Cambodian island in the Gulf of Thailand will be connected to the mainland by a 3-km (1.9-mile) bridge. The railroad will almost span Cambodia, although its exact route hasn't been revealed.

"This is 65 percent iron,'' says Sun Qi Cai, 58, caressing a heavy, gleaming lump of Rovieng rock. "Not many places have such high-quality ore.''  That includes China, the world's largest steel-maker, where most ore has an iron content of less than 40 percent.

Sun is a Chinese site manager for Cambodia Iron and Steel Mining Industry Group, which on Dec. 31 signed a deal to build the three-part project with China Major Bridge Engineering Co, a subsidiary of state-owned behemoth China Railways Group.

The iron ore is destined for the steel plant - by law, ore cannot be exported from Cambodia. Mining experts could not hazard a guess as to how much ore is recoverable in Rovieng and there was no indication of how much steel it would produce and where the products would go.

Those are just some of the unanswered questions about the project.

China's Clout

Speaking at the signing ceremony, Cambodia Iron and Steel General Manager Zhang Chuan You said work would begin in July and be finished within four years. But Cambodia's transport minister Tram Iv Tek, who also attended the ceremony, professed to know almost nothing about it. The conspicuous absence of authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen also left many wondering whether China's mystery train was going anywhere.

"There are a lot of real things happening here with Chinese money,'' says Daniel Mitchell, a long-time American resident who runs a Phnom Penh investment firm called SRP International. "I don't think this railroad is one of them."

Mining experts question whether northern Cambodia has enough mineral wealth to justify the project's costs. Transport experts wonder why the Chinese railroad will not connect with Cambodia's existing train system, which is already being refurbished at a cost of at least $141.6 million, or either of its ports.

The ambitious project could be as much strategic as economic. Chinese investment pledged in Cambodia has totaled $9.1 billion since 1994, including almost $1.2 billion in 2011 - eight times more than the United States, according to the Cambodia Investment Board. China is also Cambodia's largest aid donor.

That money carries political clout. Last year, Cambodia used its powers as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to stymie discussion on the South China Sea, where China's territorial claims overlap those of five other countries. Cambodia emerged as a staunch China ally willing to put the interests of its giant neighbor over those of its ASEAN members.

The lesson for Washington was clear.

"For U.S. strategists, if you neglect certain ASEAN countries you hurt U.S. interests," says American scholar Carlyle Thayer, an Asia Pacific security expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. "There's a price to pay ... because China's economic dominance carries political influence, the U.S. has to compete across the board."

Amateurish Facade

Cambodia Iron and Steel doesn't look like a billion-dollar company or, as Chinese media reports describe it, a Cambodian one.

It is registered to three Chinese nationals who, says Rovieng site manager Sun, are brothers. The only Cambodian found working at its Phnom Penh headquarters, a five-story building flanked by a paint shop and a Korean restaurant, was the cleaner.

Despite its amateurish facade, other evidence suggests that Cambodia Iron and Steel is moving ahead with its project, and Cambodian officials know more than they publicly state.

On July 15 last year, telecoms and electricity officials were summoned to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to explain to a Chinese representative from Cambodia Iron and Steel where the country's fiber optic and electrical cables were buried.

"He wanted to know so that the train track didn't cut through them," said a Cambodian who attended the meeting.

An official at the company's Shanghai-based partner, China Major Bridge Engineering, said it would begin construction this year but gave no specific date.

Catalysts for Protest

In Burma, where a quasi-civilian government replaced a military dictatorship in March 2011, Chinese mega-projects have been catalysts for protest. China armed and supported Burma's hated military during decades of Western sanctions, and is still resented by many people.

China's ambassador to Burma, Li Junhua, has promised greater transparency from Chinese companies doing business in the country. In Cambodia, however, Chinese companies remain tight-lipped and closely allied with an authoritarian government that last year jailed record numbers of land-rights activists.

In one token of their close collaboration with the government, Chinese projects in Cambodia are often guarded by soldiers or military police. Chinese workers often dress in military fatigues.

No sign marks the entrance to Cambodia Iron and Steel's vast site near Rovieng village, only a ramshackle house occupied by armed Cambodian soldiers who stopped Reuters from entering.

"I'm scared the Chinese will get angry," one soldier said.

Som Soeun, 64, a community leader, was among hundreds of villagers who attended a 2011 ceremony in Rovieng to announce the building of a steel plant. Also present was Suy Sem, Cambodia's Minister of Mines and Energy, who told villagers not to protest against a plant "needed for the country's development," Som Soeun recalled.

Trucks are seen in the compound of the Cambodia Iron Group at the Rovieng District in Preah Vihear province, February 10, 2013.Trucks are seen in the compound of the Cambodia Iron Group at the Rovieng District in Preah Vihear province, February 10, 2013.
x
Trucks are seen in the compound of the Cambodia Iron Group at the Rovieng District in Preah Vihear province, February 10, 2013.
Trucks are seen in the compound of the Cambodia Iron Group at the Rovieng District in Preah Vihear province, February 10, 2013.
With the help of local people, Reuters reporters entered the same area and found no sign of construction. Trucks and other heavy machinery lay idle. Lumps of iron ore littered the deserted access roads.

The Cambodia Iron and Steel's depot in Rovieng village already occupies what used to be community ground: the local soccer field. The depot also lay dormant. A villager who had befriended its few Chinese workers said they complained of being broke, bored and homesick.

The prospect of a railroad cutting a swath through homes and land is unsettling, says Som Soeun. So is the continued silence from government and company officials.

"I am worrying every day now," he says.

You May Like

Russia Names US NGO 'Undesirable'

Prosecutors determine activities of National Endowment for Democracy to be 'undesirable,' paving the way for it to be outlawed on Russian territory More

Erdogan Vows 'Anti-Terror' Campaign in Syria, Iraq

Erdogan expressed confidence the 'necessary steps' will be taken by NATO leaders, who will meet Tuesday at Turkey's request More

North Korea: 'No Interest at All' in Nuke Deal

Senior US envoy Sydney Seiler visits Beijing Tuesday for talks on how to revive the stalled six-party nuclear talks with North Korea More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
February 14, 2013 10:44 AM
Don't cry for Cambodia and don't cry for Burma. The US do not have the capability to start mega projects in foreign countries by the private sector or public sector. China captured the world raw material market by the interface of Chinese private companies used as front for the expansion of industrial growth by the Chinese government. The Chinese captured raw materials from Latin America, Africa and the South East Asia leaving the rest of the world at the mercy of China. But crying foul, citing environment reasons, is not a satisfactory reason for the inability of the US.. The US is too late to realize the dominance of China in procuring natural resouces used in industrial production. The rest of the world is begging for industrial products from China, because no other country can supply cheap products.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs