The thump of jackhammers and the whine of drills pierce the air. Above the river a concrete wall is slowly rising. In lush, north-eastern Cambodia, the £530m Lower Sesan 2 Dam stands as a potent symbol of China’s growing reach, and Beijing’s ambitious plans to expand its influence throughout Asia by building some desperately needed infrastructure.
But almost 5,000 people are likely to be evicted from their villages when the dam’s reservoir fills, and 40,000 living along the banks of the Sesan and Srepok rivers stand to lose most of the fish they rely on for food. Yet this dam project is part of a much larger Chinese ambition: President Xi Jinping is making a bold move, billed as the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, to restore what he sees as Beijing’s historic place at the centre of Asia.
Mr Xi is working behind the scenes to surpass the United States as Asia’s regional power. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cambodia, a country that has found itself drawn into China’s orbit and lured away from the West with the promise of easy money, offered with no strings attached, for roads, bridges and dams. “Without infrastructure, you can’t revive,” said Cambodia’s Commerce Minister, Sun Chanthol. “We have been blamed for always going to China, but it is because we need infrastructure fast, nothing more than that. Are there any conditions put on Cambodia by China? I can tell you: absolutely nothing. No conditions at all.”