Down a blood-red dirt track deep in the jungles of southwestern Cambodia, the roar begins. Turn a corner and there is the source — scores of dump trucks, bulldozers and backhoes hacking away at the earth. Above a massive hole, a flag flaps in the hot, dusty breeze. The flag of the People’s Republic of China.
Here in the depths of the Cardamom Mountains, China is asserting its rights as a resurgent imperial power in Asia.
At this clangorous hydropower dam site hard along Cambodia’s border with Thailand, and in Burma, Laos and even Vietnam, China is engaged in a massive push to extend its economic and political influence into Southeast Asia.
Spreading investment and aid along with political pressure, China is transforming a huge swath of territory along its southern border. Call it the Monroe Doctrine, Chinese style.
Ignored by successive US administrations, China’s rise in this region is now causing alarm in Washington, which is aggressively courting the countries of Southeast Asia. The Obama administration has cultivated closer ties with its old foe Vietnam. It has tried to open doors in Myanmar, which US officials believe is in danger of becoming a Chinese vassal state.
Relations have been renewed with Laos, whose northern half is dominated by Chinese businesses.
Still, China powers ahead.
In Cambodia, Chinese firms have turned mining and agricultural concessions in Mondulkiri province into no-go zones for Cambodian police.
Guards at the gates to two of them — a gold mine and a hemp plantation — shoo travellers away unless they are able to pay a toll. “It’s like a country within a country,” quipped Cambodia’s minister of interior, Sar Kheng, at a conference earlier this year, according to participants at the meeting.
In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content please visit www.washingtonpost.com