Speculation has been rife over Cambodia’s alleged agreement to grant China exclusive access to a naval base in Preah Sihanouk province. The move reported in a Wall Street Journal article and confirmed by a senior U.S. military official is the latest move in the geopolitical tussle involving Cambodia, China and the U.S.
As regional and Western countries press Cambodia to clarify these claims, the Cambodian and Chinese governments have been quick to deny the reports, the former qualifying it as “fake news” and an attempt to disrupt bilateral ties with Asian economic powerhouse.
In an interview with VOA Mandarin, General Chhum Socheat categorically denied any secret agreement with China to lease the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province, pointing to constitutional restrictions to making such a deal.
“Our constitution stated very clear, in Article 53, that we do not allow any foreign forces to be based in Cambodia,” said Gen. Socheat. “No, so the answer is clear: We don't have it.”
Article 53 of the Cambodian Constitution enshrines the country’s policy of “permanent neutrality and non-alignment,” adding that the government shall “not authorize any foreign military base on its territory.”
However, Cambodia has grown close to Beijing, with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Premier Xi Jinping expressing a growing bonhomie during bilateral and multilateral forums. And with its pivot away from the West, Cambodia’s economy has become increasingly reliant on Chinese foreign direct investment, mainland tourists and rice exports to China.
In return, the Chinese have found a willing ally within the ASEAN framework to thwart any regional unity of the South China Sea dispute.
The speculation on a potential Chinese military base began in July when the Wall Street Journal newspaper reported that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement to allow the Chinese military use of the Ream Naval Base.
This was followed by comments from Brigadier General Joel B. Vowell, Deputy Director for Strategic Planning and Policy at the US Indo-Pacific Command, who confirmed the report and that construction of new facilities was expected to commence next year.
At the time, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said suspicions were raised after the Cambodian military first requested assistance to upgrade facilities at Ream, but quickly rescinded this request.
“This causes us to wonder if the Cambodian leadership’s plans for Ream Naval Base include the possible hosting of foreign military assets and personnel,” U.S. Embassy spokesperson Emily Zeeberg said in a statement back in July.
General Chhum Socheat was quick to dismiss these suspicions, attributing it to a possible misunderstanding between officials of the two countries.
“We have not either written a letter or made a proper request to the United States at all. It could have been a misunderstanding from misinterpretation or something lost in translation.”
He said Cambodia would still welcome U.S. assistance for the training center at Ream and didn’t accept any funding right now only because the military was first looking for a new site to relocate the facility.
Wang Wentian, the Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, in August called the speculation “completely groundless with ulterior motives.”
“They disregard the openness and transparency of China-Cambodia military cooperation and try to disturb the public's attention with false information and undermine the mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Cambodia,” Ambassador Wang wrote in an article carried on Cambodian newspapers on August 15.
Ambassador Wang didn’t respond to multiple requests to interview him in Phnom Penh.
As Cambodia and China tout the mutual benefits of their alliance, skeptics say that while that is true, the power balance skews sharply in favor of China, making the demand for a military presence on Cambodian soil probable. Cambodia maintains that close economic ties are unrelated to military ties, where both are based on separate factors.
General Chhum Socheat denied that Cambodia had to concede to Chinese demands, and that there was never any consideration to allow a Chinese military presence at Ream.
“Cambodia is a state with full independence and sovereignty,” General Chhum Socheat responded. “We are not being dominated by anyone. No, we are not afraid of anybody.”
General Chhum Socheat even questioned the plausibility of China wanting a presence in Cambodian waters, which would be of little geostrategic value, he said.
“Their base in Hainan Island is much better compared to Cambodia’s geography. They have deep sea over there. In our naval base, it is small and also shallow water.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan clarified that the training center, for which U.S. assistance was requested, was for civilian use, which is why the military wanted to find a new location.
“What I learned from the Ministry of Defense is that they want a better place, big enough for everyone. This one is for international activity. That’s civilian. Why do you want it in the military base?”
Ou Virak, president of Future Forum policy think tank, said it was likely there was a secret deal between Cambodia and China, adding that it was unlikely a credible publication like Wall Street Journal would make an error.
“The intention might be to establish a path towards the ability of China to maybe use Cambodia and this base in the events of war or conflicts.”
But he doesn’t expect China to build a military base in Cambodia in the next five or ten years.
“What I am seeing is a continuing rise or increase in scale and in the number of exercises between the Chinese military inside Cambodia.”
(Sophat Soeung, Bopha Phorn, Narin Sun and Sokunmono Khan from VOA Khmer Service in Phnom Penh also contributed to the report)