The Cambodian military and government officials have denied a report claiming that a Beijing-backed development project would pave the way for a Chinese naval base in the country.
The online newspaper Asia Times reported that the deep-water port, which is being developed by China’s Union Development Group (UDG), could host Chinese frigates and destroyers.
But Cambodia’s Gen. Chhum Socheat, defense spokesman, denied that the port would be used as a de facto Chinese naval base in the future, which would be illegal under Cambodia’s constitution.
“I didn’t read that report, but Cambodia’s constitution says that we can’t allow foreign military bases on Cambodian soil. That’s the law. So what it [Asia Times] reported was a fabrication to damage Cambodia’s image,” he said.
Analysts told Asia Times that the port being built by UDG will be large enough to host naval vessels.
“The Chinese see commercial ports as a foot in the door for their navy anyway. Any deep-water commercial port can be used for naval ships, so the dual purpose is always there,” Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, was quote as saying in the report.
The article also quoted Sam Rainsy, the former Cambodian opposition leader, who said if Chinese naval vessels were allowed to use the port it would be a violation of the 1991 peace agreement that ended Cambodia’s civil war.
“By abandoning Cambodia’s neutrality and being part of a possible threat against neighboring countries, Hun Sen is playing with fire. Hun Sen has not only suppressed democracy in Cambodia; he is also jeopardizing peace in our region,” he said.
However, Phay Siphan, government spokesman, said the “small-scale” port would only be used for commercial purposes.
“What is received from the Chinese investments is economic benefits to bolster economic growth, job growth, and the social equity growth of Cambodia,” he added.
Paul Chambers, a political analyst at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand, told Asia Times that work on the port, and potentially the naval base, has recently commenced.
“Though China subsidizes Hun Sen’s regime, Hun Sen has allowed China economic, political and military control over Cambodia to such an extent that the country has become a neo-colonial dependency of Beijing,” Chambers was quoted as saying.
“The next step is a Chinese naval base in Cambodia as we see today,” he added.
“Perhaps Cambodia will find itself at the center of a new Cold War in Southeast Asia,” Chambers suggested.
Gen. Socheat, however, refuted the claim that Cambodia was taking sides in a “new Cold War”.
“We are an independent country, so we stand on our own interest to make friends in the world... So, we can’t be accused of taking sides with any party because we are an independent country. We have the right to make relations with other countries based on our sovereignty and national interest,” he added.
Representatives of UDG could not be reached. A US Embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.