By Dr Vijay Sakhuja*
Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen’s, repeated assertion that his country’s constitution has no provision for accommodating foreign military bases on its soil and that there were no plans to bring about any amendments to the constitution to facilitate such projects has not cut ice with the US. Instead, a media blitzkrieg has been unleashed and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article about a secret agreement between Cambodia and China under which the latter would have access to the Cambodian naval and military facility at the Ream Naval Base for 30 years and the lease would be renewed automatically every ten years. Furthermore, the WSJ article argues that the China-backed Dara Sakor project, about 40 miles from Ream, is part of Beijing’s plans to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia to “enforce territorial claims and economic interests in the South China Sea.” The Chinese built civil and military facilities in Cambodia would complicate matters for the US military should it decide to support Taiwan in any crisis as “some American forces would arrive via the Strait of Malacca or the outer reaches of the South China Sea,” the article adds.
Meanwhile, Prime Minter Hun Sen has dismissedWSJ’s insinuation, labeling the report as “the worst distorted news,” and a Cambodian official termed the reportage as ‘Fake News’. Unlike Cambodia, the Spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, was not very specific in his response, and stated that the issue should not be “over interpreted.” Earlier in June, during the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, China’s Defense Minister, Gen Wei Fenghe, had denied that Beijing was setting up a military presence in Cambodia, and had dismissed the issue.
Speculations regarding Chinese interest in accessing or building military related infrastructure in Cambodia have been around in the US and Asian strategic circles for quite some time. But the current suspicions began in June 2018 after Cambodia refused the US’s offer to restore a training facility and boat depot at the Ream Naval Base built by them, fueling rumors that Cambodia was under pressure from China, which wanted access to the facility for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Based on internal assessments relevant to this matter, US Vice President, Mike Pence, dispatched a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen wherein the former expressed concerns over a possible Chinese naval base in Cambodia.
If one is to go by the aerial photographs, graphics, and satellite imageries shared in the WSJ article and other reports relating to development projects, it is possible to conclude that China has swamped Cambodia and massive infrastructure is being developed in and around Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, including at Dara Sakor.
The Koh Kong port development project is spread over 45,000 hectares and can emerge as the Mecca of tourism in the future. In 2008, the Cambodian government had leased this prime real estate to the Union Development Group (UDG), a private property developer based in Tianjin, China, on a 99-year lease at a rent of “just US$1 million per year.” The property would be returned to Cambodia in 2108 after the lease expires. The project involves building casinos, golf courses and luxury resorts for leisure and entertainment, and the 20-kilometer long coastline would serve as a deep water port to service cruise liners that would arrive with Chinese tourists. The Koh Kong port is also linked to Dara Sakor airport, which is currently being constructed by the UDG. This airport would have a 3,400-meter long runway—longer than that of the international airport at Phnom Penh, and may possess some features suggesting that it could stage military aircraft too.
There are a number of Chinese bankrolled entertainment destinations and infrastructure projects in Cambodia, including in Phnom Penh. In particular, Sihanoukville is the leading commercial hub and Chinese entities own 90 per cent of the businesses, ranging from hotels, casinos, restaurants and massage parlours. Roads and highways are under construction across the country with Chinese financial assistance, and dams are coming up on the Mekong River. To be fair, it merits acknowledgement that Cambodia is a maritime state and engages in international commerce through the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port on the Gulf of Siam. It is the only major deep sea port in the country and the Port of Phnom Penh on the Mekong River is a small container hub. The third port—Koh Kong—which is currently in the eye of the storm, would only help it to develop economically.
Finally, it is not extraordinary for countries to develop and build maritime and aviation infrastructure which are used for commercial as well as military purposes. Additionally, it is not unusual to see both commercial vessels and warships berthed in the same port, but they are generally separated by physical barricades or boundary walls. Likewise, there are several airports across the globe that service civil aviation requirements as well as for the militaries. Thus, it is important to tone down exaggerated geostrategic concerns over Koh Kong and Dara Sakor and their possible military use.
*Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a former director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.