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US calls for transparency from Cambodia over China-backed canal

FILE - A ferry is shown on March 18, 2024, along the Mekong River where a proposed canal is planned.
FILE - A ferry is shown on March 18, 2024, along the Mekong River where a proposed canal is planned.

The United States is urging Cambodia to be transparent over a proposed $1.7 billion canal financed by China that is worrying Vietnam due to its potential impact on water resource management.

"The Cambodian people – along with people in neighboring countries and the broader region – would benefit from transparency on any major undertaking with potential implications for regional water management, agricultural sustainability, and security," Wesley Holzer, a U.S. embassy spokesperson in Phnom Penh, told VOA Khmer in an email on Tuesday.

The proposed canal has alarmed neighboring Vietnam because of how the project would affect its use of water downstream.

Cambodia approved the 180-kilometer-long (111.8 miles) Funan Techo Canal in May. The $1.7 billion project, part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, would connect the coastal province of Kep with Kandal and Takeo provinces inland. The proposed design is 100 meters (109.3 yards) wide upstream and 80 meters (87.4 yards) wide downstream, with a consistent depth of 5.4 meters (5.9 yards). It is the latest China-financed infrastructure project in Cambodia.

Phan Rim, spokesperson of Cambodia’s Ministry of Public Works and Transport, told VOA Khmer on Tuesday that the project is expected to be built by the end of this year as planned.

Mekong River
Mekong River

The U.S. is urging Cambodian authorities "to coordinate closely with the Mekong River Commission [MRC] to provide additional project details and to participate fully in any appropriate environmental impact studies to help the MRC and member countries fully understand, assess, and prepare for any possible impacts of the project," according to the embassy spokesperson.

Doan Khac Viet, deputy spokesperson for Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on April 11, "Vietnam is very interested in information about the Funan Techo Canal Project and has asked the Cambodian side to coordinate closely with the Vietnamese side and the International Mekong River Commission in sharing information and assessing the impact of the project."

Brian Eyler, senior fellow and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, said "the Cambodian government continues to say the canal does not connect to the Mekong River, but the specifications submitted by the Cambodian National Mekong Committee to the Mekong River Commission show the first and shorter section of the canal connecting to the Mekong River in Kandal Province near the Kandal container port."

"If the canal is indeed used for irrigation, then Vietnam's concerns will intensify because the only way to provide irrigation from the canal is to take much more water out of the Mekong than what is specified in the notification document to the MRC," he wrote in an email to VOA Khmer on Tuesday.

"So much remains unclear about this project and it seems to be moving forward at breakneck speed with zero room for appropriate levels of information dissemination and regional discourse," Eyler said.

He added that the project seems "to be driving a wedge between Cambodia and Vietnam and forcing other countries to choose sides on whether they support Vietnam or support Cambodia."

"The 1995 Mekong Agreement and the MRC were established to avoid these kinds of negative and potentially disastrous outcomes,” he said. “The MRC needs to be involved at all levels of this project, and currently it is not."

In December, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet reassured Hanoi, saying the project "will not incur any negative impacts on the flow of the Mekong or other rivers while maintaining a stable environment, ecology and natural habitat for biodiversity."

Rim Sokvy, an independent researcher in Cambodia, said the Cambodian government "will try its best to prevent the project from failing."

"The project could contribute significantly to Hun Manet's image," he told VOA Khmer in an email on Tuesday. "If the project is going to fail, I don't think it is because Vietnam has been trying to oppose it. I think it is because of the withdrawal of China's support. However, I do not think that China will do so as Cambodia is its key ally."

VOA Vietnamese contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This report has been updated to clarify Brian Eyler's first quote.