This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia on Tuesday hit back at Minister of Defense Tea Banh’s bid to downplay suspicions that his government plans to host Chinese military assets at a U.S.-funded naval base in Preah Sihanouk province, warning that such a move would “weaken Cambodia’s independence” and threaten ASEAN.
In a letter written to Tea Banh last month, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph Felter said that Cambodia’s National Committee for Maritime Security Tactical Headquarters had requested that Washington refurbish a training facility and boat depot, built by the U.S. in 2017, when he toured the Ream Navy Base in January, according to media reports on Monday.
While funds to upgrade the facilities were approved in April, Cambodia’s Defense Ministry informed the Pentagon two months later that they were “no longer necessary,” Felter said, prompting concerns that the ministry might be planning for a Chinese presence at the base in the province, which has seen an influx of Chinese investment in recent years.
Tea Banh responded in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia had “never rejected” any offer from the U.S. to repair the buildings and said that the facilities in question “needed to be relocated” to allow for further development in the region, while dismissing speculation that Cambodia was planning to host Chinese military assets at the base as “fake news.”
He also reiterated a denial of a Nov. 15, 2018 report by Hong Kong’s Asia Times online news portal, which cited unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Beijing is building a 45,000 hectare (111,200-acre) naval base on the coast in Koh Kong province—a report that was later cited by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in a letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy issued a statement to RFA confirming the provenance of Felter’s letter, which it said was delivered on June 24, and citing “recent developments” as having fueled speculation about Cambodia’s plans for the Ream Navy Base, “including the possible hosting of Chinese military facilities.”
“Given the high level of Chinese economic and political influence in Cambodia, this is a real concern,” the statement said.
“Any steps that weaken Cambodia’s independence or open the door to a foreign military presence in Cambodia would be of serious concern to the United States and could threaten the credibility and centrality of ASEAN. We urge Cambodian leadership to maintain its constitutional commitment to an independent foreign policy and actively protect Cambodia’s independence for future generations.”
Koh Kong base
Hun Sen has also denied that his government would amend the constitution to allow China to build a naval base in the country as “fake news” and part of a “foreign campaign to mislead the public and the international community with the intention of destroying the country’s independence and neutrality.”
If such a naval base were built on the Gulf of Thailand, it would allow China to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims much of, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.
In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to ban the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The dissolution of the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media, which paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
While relations with the West have increasingly soured since the ballot, which was widely seen as a rollback of democratic freedoms, Cambodia’s government has in recent months touted improved ties with China, which typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.
Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
In an email on Tuesday, Brian Harding, deputy director of the Washington-based Center For Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Southeast Asia Program, told RFA that if Cambodia were to allow a Chinese military presence in the country it would “create a rift within ASEAN,” as the move would be seen as “extremely provocative.”
“It will also significantly expand China’s ability to project military power into Southeast Asia and enhance China’s capacity to engage U.S. vessels transiting the region,” Harding said.
However, he acknowledged that the U.S. and European Union “have few ways to deter Cambodia from hosting Chinese military assets,” aside from trade measures that they are already considering leveling against Hun Sen’s government in response to rollbacks on democracy since the lead up to last year’s election.
Harding said that in light of a constitutional bar on foreign military bases in the country, “there are more artful ways” for China to have a military presence in Cambodia, “with Cambodia nominally retaining sovereignty.”
But he warned that “as long as Cambodia is seen to reflexively hew to Chinese interests, it will be very difficult for Cambodia to convince skeptics and tamp down speculation.”
Sovereignty at risk
Paul Chambers, a lecturer on international affairs for the College of ASEAN Community Studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University, also warned that Cambodia “could easily lose its sovereignty to China” if Hun Sen’s government allows Beijing to establish a military base in the country.
Hun Sen can either allow Cambodia to become “a proxy of China” by doing so, or look to the U.S. to balance Chinese influence in his country, he said.
“Either way, Cambodia would once again become a toy with which China and the U.S. compete to further their own geopolitical interests,” he said, referring to Chinese influence over the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime in 1975 and Western efforts that led to the establishment of a democracy in Cambodia following the October 1991 Paris Peace Accord.
“At this point, Cambodia’s only way out is to keep China and the U.S. out of Cambodia,” he said. “But that is highly unlikely at this point.”