China shifting to quality over quantity in Southeast Asian aid

Unpaved roads leading to the concrete bridge have contributed to a dust problem for locals.

BANGKOK - China is looking to be more sensitive to the environmental effects of development projects it sponsors in Southeast Asia, mindful of complaints from affected residents.

In the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, China has constructed a concrete bridge for National Highway 6. But a delay in paving connecting roads is making the area dusty.

"Dust has been bad since the bridge was built," a local says. "Some families had to move."

In the western province of Koh Kong, plans for building a hydropower plant had to be reconsidered. Opposition stemmed from concerns that residents would have to relocate and the destruction of a valuable ecosystem.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the government will not grant approval to begin construction anytime soon.

China is a major provider of aid to Cambodia, accounting for about 30% of all assistance received by the Southeast Asian country. "China is reliable because of its ability to take action," a high-ranking Cambodian government official says.

Meanwhile, a construction company staffer says that "process control for Chinese projects is unclear, and checks of construction sites are sloppy."

Providing economic assistance gives China a foothold for expanding into the recipient country's market. But if projects create environmental and labour issues, China's image could suffer.

The Chinese government thus incorporated "improvement of the environment of the recipient country" into guidelines that took effect this month for new aid projects.

China has become the world's sixth-largest provider of development aid, the Japan International Cooperation Agency estimates. In 2013, it provided $7 billion more in assistance than it received. The tally has septupled since 2004.

"Since about a year ago, China has never skipped an advance survey" to hear the demands of local residents and carry out an environmental assessment, cabinet spokesman Pai Siphan says.

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