Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has said claims that China is “invading” his country are “crazy,” The Phnom Penh Post and The Nation in Bangkok reported on October 25.

Hun Sen was addressing a gathering of Cambodians living in Europe when he made the remarks in Geneva, Switzerland.

He claimed Chinese workers were in Cambodia to fill shortages of labor in the construction sector: “There are a lot of construction projects [in Cambodia], but we don’t have enough skilled workers, therefore we have to bring [the Chinese] in to build our bridges and help with many other projects,” Hun Sen was quoted as saying.

There are estimated to be about one million Cambodians working in neighboring Thailand, ironically many of them laboring on construction sites.

He also said that when the Chinese laborers finish their work, “they will return to their home country.” He did not mention the number of Chinese workers in Cambodia, but said that last year, there were about 1.2 million Chinese tourists in the country and this year that number may grow to 1.5 million, more than from any other country.

According to the Ministry of the Interior in Cambodia, there were 210,000 Chinese nationals living in Cambodia, with 70,000 in or near the port city of Sihanoukville, a focal point for Chinese investment as well as tourism.

The Cambodian coast is home to US$4.2 billion worth of power plants and offshore oil operations, all owned by Chinese companies, The Guardian reported in July this year. Sihanoukville has been nicknamed Macau No. 2 because about 80 casinos have been built in the seaside town to cater to Chinese gamblers. 

Beyond Sihanoukville, funds from China’s Belt and Road Initiative were financing a new highway from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh and a bigger airport in the capital.

Chinese and Cambodians live side-by-side in Sihanoukville, but rarely interact and many Cambodians claim they have been forced out as the new arrivals have pushed up the price of land and housing.