An article published in IPP Review.
By Kimkong Heng
On July 21, 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cambodia had signed a secret pact with China to allow the latter exclusive rights to part of the Kingdom’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. The journal, citing unnamed US officials who reportedly had seen an early draft of the deal, said that the secret agreement signed earlier this year would allow China access to the base for up to 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years afterwards. China would also be able to use the base for posting military personnel, storing weapons, and berthing warships.
The agreement, the existence of which was strenuously denied by both Cambodian and Chinese officials, “would sharply increase Beijing’s capacity to enforce territorial claims and economic interests in the South China Sea, to threaten US allies in Southeast Asia and to extend its influence over the strategically important Malacca Strait,” the journal reported.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a day after the WSJ report, told the pro-government Fresh News website that the report is “the worst-ever made up news against Cambodia” and that “no such thing could happen because hosting foreign military bases is against the Cambodian constitution.” On the same day, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation clarified that Prime Minister Hun Sen categorically rejected the “fake news” spread by the Wall Street Journal and considered it “the most ill intention against Cambodia.”
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, told reporters in Beijing that “the Chinese and Cambodian armed forces have always carried out good exchanges and cooperation in military and personnel training and logistics equipment.” He said reports about China’s intention to build a military base in Cambodia were not true.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang earlier declined to comment whether China also denied the report and said during a press briefing that China and Cambodia “have cooperated in various areas. Our cooperation is open, transparent, and mutually beneficial and equal. I hope the relevant parties do not overinterpret it.”
The US, since November 2018, has raised concerns about China building a dual-use naval base at Dara Sakor in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, located some 60 kilometers northwest of Ream Naval Base. Concerns and speculations about the possible hosting of Chinese military facilities in Cambodia have surfaced after the presence of a mega resort project being built at Dara Sakor that will host a large international airport with a runway length of about three kilometers and big enough to accommodate Boeing 747s or handle large military aircraft.
Dara Sakor, a USD 3.8 billion real estate investment zone, occupies 36,000 hectares of land or roughly 20 percent of Cambodia’s entire coastline. The zone was leased for 99 years in 2008 to a state-run Chinese construction company, Union Development Group, which has denied the dual purposes of the project and claimed it is completely commercial.
This issue of a potential Chinese naval outpost in Cambodia has immediately gained widespread media attention, thanks to the WSJ report. Few, if any, major media outlets have failed to report on the allegations, dubbed as baseless and ill-intended by the Cambodian government. Although both Cambodia and China have repeatedly denied all these speculations and accusations, US policymakers, political analysts, and international media are not convinced. Reports about the possible Chinese military presence in Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base or Dara Sakor have therefore frequently resurfaced in the media.
Satellite images have shown that there is a real possibility that the Dara Sakor resort project currently under construction can be quickly turned into a naval base as evidenced by the runway which appears to be unusually longer and larger than needed for commercial aircraft. The images have raised speculation that China is developing naval facilities at Dara Sakor in Koh Kong province. Both China and Cambodia have vehemently rejected such speculation.
Overall, allegations and other harsh measures taken by the US and its allies against the Cambodian government have only pushed Phnom Penh further into Beijing’s orbit, while exacerbating the already deteriorating diplomatic relations between Phnom Penh and Washington.
At this stage, details about the secret deal as well as its actual existence are still unclear. While the US and its allies are poised to believe that Cambodia is granting China exclusive rights to use part of its naval base for military purposes, Cambodia and China will certainly continue to deny any speculation and accusation concerning the possibility of a Chinese military base on Cambodian soil.
Thus, whether the US allegations are true or fake now remain to be seen. One can only wait for more details to emerge and see how this issue will unfold since the alleged secret agreement may be non-existent and just made-up accusations by the US against Cambodia and China amid Washington’s concern over Beijing’s increasing influence in Cambodia and the region. But the allegations are more likely to be false than true as nothing unusual was sighted by some 70 reporters who were invited by the Cambodian Ministry of National Defense on July 26 for a whistle-stop tour to the Ream Naval Base. During the tour, defense ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat told reporters that “we [Cambodia] have nothing to hide from foreigners who still accuse us of doing this or that.”
Nevertheless, the power of media and the reputation of the Wall Street Journal, although it cited anonymous US and allied officials, allow one to believe that the US allegations may be credible. The early draft of the pact on which the report is based, if shown, would be the single most important evidence to dispel the doubt surrounding the allegations. Its absence, due probably to its non-existence, on the contrary, only helps reinforce the strenuous denials made by Cambodian and Chinese officials.
Notwithstanding this uncertainty, one thing is certain, that is, relations between Cambodia and the US reach a new low, if not a crisis point. The US and its allies such as the European Union have in recent years been critical and mindful of Cambodia’s political and human rights development. Sanctions and restrictions in the form of asset freezes and visa sanctions have been put in place against Cambodian government officials by the US, while the EU has begun the process of withdrawing Cambodia’s preferential tariff-free access to the EU market.
Since 2017 when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was court-dissolved several months before the 2018 national elections which saw the ruling party sweeping all the 125 National Assembly seats, the Cambodian government has come under closer scrutiny by Western governments, due in part to the Kingdom’s democratic backsliding and its growing alignment with China. Scarce tactics including economic pressure and visa restrictions have however failed to reverse Cambodia’s democratic drift as the country is effectively transitioning to a one-party state.
At present, Cambodia-US relations are going downhill as both countries suffer from growing strategic mistrust. Cambodia has accused the US of an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the Cambodian government by supporting the now-dissolved opposition party to stage a color revolution; an allegation the US Embassy in Phnom Penh has rejected as baseless and misleading. Now, somewhat ironically, US officials has accused Cambodia of allowing China to build a military base on its territory. Both sides have made and denied each other’s accusations.
Overall, allegations and other harsh measures taken by the US and its allies against the Cambodian government have only pushed Phnom Penh further into Beijing’s orbit, while exacerbating the already deteriorating diplomatic relations between Phnom Penh and Washington. US-Cambodia relations, given current diplomatic tensions, appear to be on the path to permanent rupture, if no appropriate action is taken to rectify the situation.
In this regard, it is vital that both sides, the US in particular, devote further efforts to rebuild confidence and trust in their relationship, or else, when the damage is done, all speculations and allegations about a Chinese naval outpost in Cambodia may become a reality. If that happens, US policymakers, arguably, will be to blame for their failure to reverse Cambodia’s decision and their success in making Cambodia a true Chinese client state.
About the author
Kimkong Heng is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland and a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.