Students in their twenties sit behind old wooden desks in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, scribbling away as a teacher barks out phrases in a foreign language above the roar of motorcycles outside.
Unlike in most other countries in the region, the students at this private language school and others nearby are not learning English — it is Chinese.
Along the street, signs with golden Chinese letters on newly painted red-and-yellow buildings offer cheap crash courses in Mandarin.
“Before, people came to this area to study English, but now it’s Chinese,” said Gua Fa, a teacher and manager at the Ming Fa Chinese School. “The students all want to be tour guides, Chinese translators, or work in banks and restaurants.”
It is another sign of China’s growing influence in Cambodia, something that is upsetting the unity of the 10-member ASEAN.
China has a good standing in impoverished Laos and Myanmar as well, ASEAN members along with Cambodia, much to the chagrin of others in the bloc such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which are at loggerheads with Beijing over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand make up the rest of the grouping.
As cash-strapped and underdeveloped Cambodia increasingly turns to Beijing, the group is worried about being held hostage by China’s economic power over its poorest members.
“While China’s loans and infrastructure projects have benefited the region, there has been growing resentment,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“There are also worries of excessive dependence on China as well as fears of increased vulnerability to economic pressure,” Glaser added.
Of ASEAN’s three poorer members, Cambodia appears to be the most under Beijing’s sway.
About 40,000 Cambodians have enrolled in Chinese language schools, according to the Khmer Chinese Association in Cambodia, bucking the trend in a region promoting English ahead of the 2015 launch of an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that wants to draw investors to a US$2 trillion market of 10 countries and 600 million people.
“It will be more useful than English,” said Heng Guechly, a student at another private school. “There’s a lot of demand and China has a good relationship with Cambodia, so more Chinese will come to do business here.”
Official data show Chinese investment in Cambodia was US$1.9 billion last year, more than double the combined amount of ASEAN countries and 10 times more than the US.
Phnom Penh’s low-rise skyline is dotted with Chinese cranes and construction projects. The two countries’ flags fly side-by-side on building sites, where foremen shout in Mandarin at Cambodian labourers who grumble about the unfamiliar Chinese food they get served.
Official data showed 151,887 Chinese tourists visited Cambodia in the first half of this year, up 33 percent from the same period last year, with the tourism industry hoping to lure one million Chinese a year by 2020. Agribusinesses are being set up by Chinese companies and 70 percent of the 330 factories manufacturing garments — Cambodia’s biggest foreign currency earner and source of employment — are Chinese-owned.
China’s deep ties with Cambodia, and to a lesser extent with Laos and Myanmar, have effectively given Beijing an outsider’s veto over decisions in ASEAN, which require consensus among all members.