PHNOM PENH – Speculation has been rife the Cambodia’s Hun Sen has allegedly agreement to grant China exclusive access to a naval base . Regional and Western countries have press Cambodia to clarify these claims.
Cambodian and China have been quick to deny the reports. Cambodia’s Hun Sen calling it “fake news” and an attempt to disrupt bilateral ties with Asia’s economic powerhouse.
The story first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on July 21 and was immediately denied with a suspicious amount of bluster. Both the Chinese government and Cambodia’s leader of 34 years, Hun Sen quickly denied the reports.
Hun Sen dismissed the story, saying Cambodia’s constitution forbids the country from hosting foreign military bases. But as he has driven a bulldozer through every major aspect of the Cambodian constitution to keep himself in power for decades. He has made the country little more than Beijing’s vassal state. Invoking the constitution is not a convincing argument.
For Beijing, acquiring a naval base at the heart of Southeast Asia would be a significant security and force-projection multiplier. When coupled with the seven military bases it has built on islands constructed on shoals in the South China Sea.
It would also be one more gem in Beijing’s so-called “string of pearls” strategy. Including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and a full-blown military base in Djibouti.
Washington and other western administrations have been watching with suspicion and concern Beijing’s 20-year charm offensive aimed at Hun Sen. This has led to both the Cambodian economy and Cambodian foreign policy being dominated by Beijing’s interests.
It may well have been a sly scheme by Washington to test the strength of the Sino-Cambodian ties when in June the United States offered to renovate and enhance Cambodian facilities at the Ream Naval Base.
Ream Naval Base in Cambodia’s in Preah Sihanouk Province
Washington had been closely watching what was going on at the Ream Naval Base since January 2017 when the Hun Sen regime announced it was ending annual military exercises with the US. Instead, Cambodia is now holding yearly exercises with the Chinese military.
In the face of denials by both Cambodia and Beijing that China will construct its own naval facilities at the Ream Naval Base, the US decided to go public.
Last week Brigadier General Joel B Vowell, a senior officer in the Indo-Pacific Command, said Washington has firm evidence that Beijing plans to begin construction early next year of PLA Navy facilities at the Cambodian base.