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8 Nov 2022


Cambodia: Two China-driven projects show striking contrasts as locals see tangible benefits brought by Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway

"Easy Highway, Troubled City: How China Wins and Loses Cambodians’ Hearts" 8 November 2022

Two China-driven projects show striking contrasts. The newly opened Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway has been well-received by Cambodians. But grand plans for Sihanoukville to be an investment hub and “multi-purpose” city have instead seen Chinese businesses crowding out locals, a boom-bust cycle in construction and illicit trades.

What kind of Chinese investment may win over Cambodians’ hearts? The benefits and costs, and public reception of two landmark projects are revealing. People appear enthused to use a new expressway but uneasy about economic change in the road’s terminal point, the city of Sihanoukville.

Cambodia has heartily embraced the first expressway linking the capital of Phnom Penh to the coastal province of Preah Sihanouk since it was opened to the public for a one-month free trial in early October. The 187km, US$2 billion Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway is a signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), which borrowed from various Chinese development banks. [...] Sihanoukville has also recently become a centre of transnational human trafficking, online scams and related crimes committed by Chinese organised gangs. [...]

Two China-driven projects show striking contrasts. The Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway seems to deliver tangible benefits to Cambodians and potential returns for the Chinese operator; Sihanoukville’s transformation has seen Chinese businesses crowding out locals, amid a tumult of boom-and-bust construction and illicit trades. The city’s troubles expose flaws in project conception and governance that have also limited the access and participation of Cambodians. While the full costs and benefits of the expressway remain to be seen, it shows transport infrastructure projects may win over the hearts of Cambodians given their immediate and well-received benefits enjoyed by users, and positive spillovers for the economy.