Work begins on Cambodia’s first motorway, thanks to $2bn of Chinese funding

China Road and Bridge Corp has broken ground on Cambodia’s first-ever motorway, a $2bn four-lane link stretching 190km between Phnom Penh and the southwestern port city of Sihanoukville.

China Road and Bridge signed a build-operate-transfer contract last year in which it undertook to meet all the costs of the project.

The project will widen Cambodia’s busiest freight corridor, a chronically congested two-lane road. When complete in 2023, the journey is expected to be cut from five hours to two.

Speaking at the official opening of the project on Friday, 22 March, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denied that the growing dependence of Cambodia on Chinese investment meant his country had become a colony of China. 

"Critics say China is colonialising Cambodia … although China wishes to control Cambodia, Cambodia will not let it do so," he said, also denying reports that China was planning to build a naval base in his country.

Kong Xuanyou, China’s vice foreign minister, who also attended the ceremony, also dismissed concerns over his country’s growing influence, particularly in the city of Sihanoukville, which has become a magnet for Chinese investors and gamblers.

He said: "Some groups with ill-will have turned white-to-black, colouring Chinese investment as a trap. In fact, the Chinese investment is not a trap, it is not even a threat, but it is a help."

The project is being undertaken as part of China’s gargantuan Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Gu Jiayun, an expert with Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the China’s Global Times that the BRI made projects such as the motorway possible.

He said: "The need to build the expressway came as early as 2006. China joined later with a build-operate-transfer model because the $2 billion cost exceeded Cambodia’s debt plan, and no other country wanted to provide aid."

China Road and Bridge is a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company, currently the world’s fourth largest construction group. It specialises in large-scale transport infrastructure, although it also carries out property development.

Image: Bottles of petrol on sale in Cambodia, a country that has no motorways (Dragfyre/CC BY-SA 3.0)

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