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Chinese Defense Minister Denies “Military Presence in Cambodia”

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe salutes attendees ahead of the fourth plenary session of the 18th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual defense and security forum in Asia, in Singapore, June 2, 2019.

However, he not give a direct answer to the question of whether China “is seeking” to have a future military presence in Cambodia, which is increasingly getting close to Beijing.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Sunday denied that China is establishing a military presence in Cambodia, as rumors have spread and concerns have been raised by the United States.

“There is no such thing as for China to establish its military presence in Cambodia. There is no such thing out there,” said Fenghe responding to a question at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore over the weekend, which was attended by Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh.

However, the Chinese general did not give a direct answer to the question of whether China “is seeking” to have a future military presence in Cambodia, which is increasingly getting close to Beijing.

In its updated Indo-Pacific Strategy report by the US. Department of Defense titled “Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region” released on June 1 to time with the summit, the United States said it remained “concerned about reports that China is seeking to establish bases or a military presence on its [Cambodian] coast, a development that would challenge regional security and signal a clear shift in Cambodia’s foreign policy orientation.”

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph H. Felter who visited Cambodia in January expressed his concerns over Chinese military presence there, saying “that would undermine regional security and undermine Cambodia’s security as it would undermine its sovereignty.”

However, the Cambodian government has repeated dismissed such concerns.

In November, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been nurturing closer relations with Beijing, said Cambodia “doesn’t allow foreign military bases regardless of whether it is for naval forces, infantry forces, or air forces.”

The news comes after a report published by online newspaper Asia Times quoting analysts as saying that the deep-water port being built by Union Development Group (UDG) was large enough to host frigates and destroyers.

The UDG was granted 45,000 hectares of land in 2008, including 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline, in Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts of Koh Kong province to develop a massive resort.

Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh told VOA Khmer in March that the Chinese project aims for eco-tourism only.

China holds nearly half of Cambodia's $6 billion in foreign debt and is Cambodia's biggest trading partner. Chinese investment is transforming Cambodia's real estate market and gaming industry, particularly in Sihanoukville, where there is a special economic zone.

Much of this has been driven by China's Belt and Road Initiative, which will build $1 trillion worth of infrastructure projects in roads, bridges, railways, ports and power plants in more than 70 countries to steer global commerce its way.

Wang Chao, the deputy president of UDG was quoted by the Khmer Times newspaper denying the accusation that the company has built the infrastructure for Chinese naval base.

“It is not true. I think the Prime Minister [Hun Sen] has talked about this already. And it is based on the truth. We are commercial project. We didn’t touch on military issue,” he was quoted as saying.

The identity of UDG and whether it has links to the Chinese government remains unclear.

UDG is expected to complete the construction of an airport with a 3,200-meter long runway on seven hectares of land in May 2020. The airport will become Cambodia’s largest, according to Chao.

There will also be two commercial sea ports in addition the existing tourism port, he added.

Paul Chambers, a political analyst, and lecturer at Thailand's Naresuan University, said in an email that “UDG is an appendage of the Chinese state. As such, its apparent commercial interest in Koh Kong actually is to entrench Cambodia itself as an economic, political and military extension of Beijing.”

“Turning Cambodia into a dependency represents just another part of the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) policy of Chinese expansionism. Cambodia’s government needs to prevent itself from being drawn into this Beijing “quicksand” before it is too late—before Cambodia becomes straight-jacketed inside of China’s neo-colonialist ambition across the world,” he added.