News / Asia

    Foreign Investment Brings Cambodia Growth, New Issues

    A train prepares to start during the official recommencement of commercial train services on a rehabilitated rail corridor in Phnom Penh October 22, 2010.
    A train prepares to start during the official recommencement of commercial train services on a rehabilitated rail corridor in Phnom Penh October 22, 2010.

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    Ron Corben

    Cambodian officials say the country's economic growth rate is set to exceed seven percent this year. According to financial analysts even if the global economy slows, Cambodia is well prepared to deal with it, partly because of strong foreign investment. But the billions of dollars flowing into the country are also raising concerns about the political and social impact from massive development projects.

    Cambodia has posted strong economic growth in the two years since the 2008 global financial crisis. Foreign investment, a growing tourism industry and a strong agricultural sector have been key to that growth.

    The country's garment and textiles sector is also doing well, with exports set to rise by 40 percent this year.

    "The Cambodian economy is probably in the best shape it has ever been in - absent is what is going on the rest of the world," said Stephen Higgins, chief executive officer for ANZ Royal Bank in Phnom Penh. "The economic growth this year we think will be in the range of seven to eight percent, and the normal global environment we would expect probably eight to 10 percent in the next few years."

    But Higgins says inflation must be kept under control, especially with regard to rising food prices.

    Despite economic uncertainty in Europe and the United States, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimated growth this year at 6.8 percent and only expects the rate to decrease slightly next year.

    Analysts say foreign investors from Japan are seeking alternatives to China and Thailand. They are joining long standing regional investors such as Vietnam and South Korea.

    But China remains the country's top investor. Chinese state media report that investors have poured in about $5.5 billion in the first seven months of the year.

    Among the investments is a luxury property development project worth $3 billion. China has also provided money for hydropower and road construction. And two of China's leading banks, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Bank of China, opened branches in Cambodia this year.

    ADB senior economist Peter Brimble says while funds from China are welcome, Chinese aid can be restrictive.

    "Chinese aid is extremely tied; [there is] no bidding.  It's quite likely - especially if it's a loan rather than a grant - you may actually be paying more for what you are getting just because the Chinese don't believe in competitive bidding. I think the government knows that."

    Critics say China's economic influence is linked to its political concerns. They point to an incident in 2009 when Cambodia deported 20 Muslim ethnic Uighurs who sought asylum after fleeing violence in China. Soon after their departure, a senior Chinese official arrived in Cambodia to sign 14 trade deals worth $850 million.

    David Carter, president of the Australian Business Association of Cambodia, says Cambodia has welcomed investment from China.

    "Certainly it has a big influence on the place," said Carter.  "Bridges and roads are being built. So there's a feeling that a lot of Chinese money around the place, but I think most people are aware it will come with obligations attached. So it's good, but you have to pay your bills back at some time."  

    The development projects funded by those investments can have a dramatic impact on one of South East Asia's poorest nations. While officials have welcomed investments in upgrading Cambodia's infrastructure, there have also been thousands of evictions to make way for new projects. In 2010, rights groups estimate 30,000 people were forced from their homes by mining, agriculture and hydropower projects.

    The Housing Rights Task Force, a rights group that has been critical of government resettlement policies, says up to 150,000 people may be evicted in the coming years.  They say at least 80,000 evictions could occur in the capital, Phnom Penh.

    Hang Chayya, director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, says foreign investors must respect human rights in order to maintain long term relationships in Cambodia.

    "Any bilateral relationship with China has to be done on one that respects human rights and democracy in the country," said Chayya.  "And this is what is not happening in the government taking the option of dealing with China."

    Cambodia's economic performance will be highlighted in 2012, when Phnom Penh hosts the annual meetings of the regional Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

    Analysts say Cambodia's economic future increasingly lies with the fortunes of its close neighbors Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, and its distant neighbor to the north, China.

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