US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph H. Felter wrapped up his official trip to Cambodia this week by warning of China’s military presence in Cambodia and calling for democratic reform.
During the two-day visit, Felter met with General Neang Phat, secretary of state at Ministry of National Defense, and discussed military cooperation and regional security. He also met with Ouk Seiha, the deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Navy, in Sihanoukville.
In an interview with VOA Khmer on Wednesday, Felter said military ties between the two countries would be unlikely to improve unless Cambodia has “a national reconciliation” including the release of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was jailed on treason charges shortly before the party was disbanded in November 2017. Sokha was later placed under house arrest and is still awaiting trial.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party claims that Sokha conspired with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen. The CNRP was the country’s largest opposition party and the only party to win seats in parliament in the 2013 election.
“Yeah, we are concerned. The charges against him [Sokha] were directly related to conspiring with the US. And they’re just false,” said Felter.
“And I think that would be a nice gesture on Cambodia’s part to drop those charges and I think that would be one example of an area that would help us move down that path that I just described towards improving our military relationship and increasing military-to-military cooperation,” he added.
In November, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been nurturing closer relations with Beijing, denied reports that a Chinese-built port in Koh Kong province could be used to dock China Navy vessels. The news comes after a report published by online newspaper Asia Times quoted analysts as saying that the deep-water port being built by Union Development Group (UDG) was large enough to host frigates and destroyers.
Hun Sen said Cambodia “doesn’t allow foreign military bases regardless of whether it’s for naval forces, infantry forces, or air forces.”
During his visit, Felter expressed his concerns over the Chinese military presence in Cambodia, saying “that would undermine regional security and undermine Cambodia’s security as it would undermine its sovereignty.” And he warned that Cambodia could fall into a “Chinese trap.”
“We’re concerned based on the precedent across the region that Cambodia might fall into the same trap other countries have and find themselves with a Chinese military presence or have access to ports and airports that they could use to project military power. We find that very concerning,” he added.
“So we are encouraged that the prime minister has affirmed strongly that, based on the constitution, he will not permit a foreign military presence or foreign military bases in Cambodia. But if China was able to establish a base, we are concerned about how that can undermine regional security and Cambodia’s security,” he said.
Ministry of National Defence spokesman Chhum Socheat declined to comment and referred questions to Neang Phat, secretary of state of Ministry of National Defense who could not be reached.
Council of Minister's spokesman Phay Siphan and Chinese embassy officials in Phnom Penh also could not be reached for comment.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence Tea Banh told the Phnom Penh Post this week that demands for opposition leader Sokha’s release in return for military cooperation were not “the business of the US”.
“This condition is impossible because it involves our sovereignty, and therefore it is impossible for this or that person to place conditions or demand that we do this or that . . . We cannot exchange our sovereignty, rights, and laws [in return for strengthening military ties],” he was quoted as saying in the paper.
“In short, [the US] has tried to obstruct our development in all sectors through placing this and that pressure or this or that measure – this is the way it has practiced [bilateral relations] so far,” he added.
China holds nearly half of Cambodia's $6 billion in foreign debt, and it 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 (BRI), which will build $1 trillion in roads, bridges, railways, ports and power plants in more than 70 countries to steer global commerce its way.
Billed as China's win-win drive for creating economic opportunity in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, the infrastructure investments, such as deep-water ports, are being met with increasing skepticism.
China's maritime BRI projects, the so-called "String of Pearls" in coastal states of the Indo-Pacific, have long been seen by many analysts as a move "to create de facto overseas military bases for China's military forces," according to a recent report by C4ADS, an NGO.