Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday denied a report that his country had signed a secret agreement with China to allow the Chinese navy to use a naval base in the Gulf of Thailand.
On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported a bilateral agreement, signed earlier this year, would give China exclusive rights to parts of the Ream naval base, located near a large airport being built by China on the Gulf of Thailand in neighboring Koh Kong province.
"This is the worst fake news against Cambodia," said Hun Sen in an interview with Cambodia's Fresh News.
"No such thing could happen because hosting foreign military bases is against the constitution of Cambodia," the prime minister said, according to Fresh News.
The Wall Street Journal reported that neither China nor Cambodia has disclosed the agreement. The Journal report cited unnamed U.S. officials confirming that China and Cambodia had reached a deal for use of the naval base near Sihanoukville, a center of Chinese investment in Cambodia. The deal, akin to a lease agreement, would allow China "to use the base for 30 years, with automatic renewal every 10 years after that" for posting military personnel, storing weapons and berthing warships.
Having access to a naval base on the Cambodian coast would extend China's influence in Southeast Asia and help bolster its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei all claim the same waters.
On Monday, Chhum Socheat, a Ministry of Defense spokesperson, called the Journal report "fake," baseless and exaggerated, adding that Cambodia has never signed any agreement that would violate its constitution.
"We have declared again and again that there is no agreement that [approves] any location for Chinese military to operate in Cambodia," said Chhum Socheat. "We have said enough."
The Ministry of Defense spokesperson also expressed on his Facebook account that "foreign media appear to attempt to destroy security and peace in Cambodia and the region."
Emily V. Zeeberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Cambodia, urged the government in Phnom Penh to be "fully transparent about any military agreement with China." In an email to VOA Khmer, she pointed out that a foreign military presence in Cambodia would threaten the centrality and coherence of Cambodia in ASEAN.
"We urge Cambodia's leadership to honor its constitutional commitment to its people to pursue an independent foreign policy, and to protect Cambodia's independence and sovereignty for future generations," she said.
If the agreement proves to be true, it would be the latest show of China's increasing influence in Cambodia. Last July, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech that China was the country's largest investor. Support from the West has dwindled over human rights and civil society issues as Hun Sen's government has become increasingly authoritarian since the run-up to the 2018 election.
China estimates the total construction contracts signed by the end of 2017 were worth $17.54 billion, in a country where nominal GDP is just over $20 billion, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.
Chinese money and tourists have transformed once slow-moving Sihanoukville near the Ream base. Chinese-funded development in the coastal city has transformed it into a boomtown filled with glitzy casinos catering to Chinese tourists. Due in part to the speed of change, there is a local backlash against the investment and associated immigration.
The Nikkei Asian Review reported that Cambodia's tourism ministry recorded more than 1.2 million Chinese tourists visiting in 2017, a 50% increase year on year, making China the country's leading source of visitors.
This report originated in VOA's Khmer service.