Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday dismissed reports that China has signed a secret agreement to use a naval base on the outskirts of the coastal port city of Sihanoukville, saying such an arrangement had never been discussed because it would be in violation of national law.
“No such thing [has] happened, since a foreign military base will be in full contradiction to Cambodia’s constitution,” Hun Sen said, according to a statement released by Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to a Sunday report by The Wall Street Journal, which cited U.S. and allied officials as saying that Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a deal in the spring granting Chinese armed forces access to part of the Ream Navy Base, near a large airport a Chinese firm is building.
“What does Cambodia need the Chinese military presence in its territory for? We have never had any discussion with the Chinese leader [Xi Jinping], let alone the signing of an agreement,” the prime minister said, calling for an end to the use of “distorted news about China’s military presence in Cambodia against us.”
The government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit also issued a statement, saying that Hun Sen “categorically rejects the fake news spread by The Wall Street Journal,” which the prime minister considers “ill-intentioned against Cambodia.”
While details of the agreement were unclear, officials cited by the Journal described an early draft as allowing China to use the base for 30 years—with automatic renewals every 10 years after that—and to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.
If confirmed, the deal granting use of the Ream Navy Base on the Gulf of Thailand would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and allow it to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea. Beijing claims most of that sea, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.
In response to reports of the arrangement, U.S. Embassy spokesperson Emily Zeeburg told the Journal that Washington is “concerned that any steps by the Cambodian government to invite a foreign military presence in Cambodia” would disturb regional peace and stability.
Inquiries to The Wall Street Journal about the Cambodian government's allegations that its report was based on "fake news" went unanswered on Monday.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, at a regular news briefing in Beijing on Monday, repeated Cambodia’s denial of the deal, and said Phnom Penh and Beijing cooperate transparently “in various areas,” without elaborating.
The Journal’s report follows a bid earlier this month by Minister of Defense Tea Banh to downplay suspicions that Cambodia planned to host Chinese military assets at the base, despite having backed out of an request for Washington to refurbish a training center and boat depot built there by the U.S., telling RFA’s Khmer Service the facilities “needed to be relocated” to allow for further development in the region.
Tea Banh at the time also reiterated a denial of a Nov. 15, 2018 report by Hong Kong’s Asia Times online news portal, which cited unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Beijing is building a 45,000 hectare (111,200-acre) naval base on the coast in Koh Kong province—a report that was later cited by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in a letter of concern to Hun Sen.
On Monday, Tea Banh told RFA that his ministry would not seek a correction or pursue legal action against The Wall Street Journal for its report “because no one is going to listen to it.”
“We have made our position clear and clarified the issue in question countless times already, and yet they continue to repeat [the claims], so we have no reason to deal with them,” he said, referring to the officials quoted in the report.
“This story will never end because those who have raised it intend to show that Cambodia has done something against their will. Our prime minister has already responded clearly to the U.S. vice president on this matter.”
Pivot to China
In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to ban the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The dissolution of the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media, which paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
While relations with the West have increasingly soured in the aftermath of the ballot, which was widely seen as a rollback of democratic freedoms, Cambodia’s government has since touted improved ties with China, which typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.
Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
On Monday, political commentator Kim Sok told RFA that he believes the Journal’s report is “very likely true” and said that, if confirmed, the deal would amount to “the sale of [our] national sovereignty.”
“[The government] is violating its own constitution and betraying its own people by strategically depending on a foreign state to strengthen [Hun Sen’s rule],” he said.
“[Hun Sen] used to rely on the Vietnamese, but now he relies even more on the Chinese, in order to maintain his power and control his interests.”
Hun Sen was once a junior official of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime—which terrorized Cambodia from 1975-79, killing almost a quarter of the population—but fled the movement as it fell apart, and has ruled the country through a variety of political positions since being installed as head of the Vietnamese-controlled People's Republic of Kampuchea in 1985.
In an email to RFA on Monday, Sophal Ear, associate professor of World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said that a deal between Phnom Penh and Beijing for China to use the Ream Navy Base would be “incredibly damaging to the authorities’ credibility.”
“[If true, it would mean] they have been lying all along and got caught red handed—or as [the government] likes to say [in legal cases against members of the opposition], ‘In flagrante delicto,’” he said.
Political scientist Em Sovannara demanded that Cambodia’s government explain the reason behind its shift in global alliances.
“If the government leans towards China, the U.S. will use all necessary mechanisms to pressure Cambodia through diplomacy and trade,” he said.
“Cambodia cannot challenge the U.S. and Europe—we already have difficulty dealing with our neighbors, so how can we challenge the superpowers? It is risky to do so. We should maintain our diplomatic and trade relationships with them to safeguard our national interests.”
Em Sovannara urged the government to allow foreign experts, diplomats and journalists to visit the relevant sites to investigate the reports for themselves.
South China Sea
Reports of the base deal come amid an ongoing standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in disputed waters of the South China Sea that included two tense incidents earlier this month.
On July 15, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, a ship operated by the China Geological Survey, completed a 12-day survey of waters near the disputed Spratly Islands, according to a recent report from Washington-based think tank the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS).
Nine Vietnamese vessels followed the China Coast Guard escorted Haiyang as it conducted its survey of the area, according to C4ADS, which included an oil block that Vietnam had licensed to Spanish firm Repsol.
The survey followed an incident on July 2 in which the China Coast Guard ship Haijing 35111 sailed in what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) described as a “threatening manner” towards Vietnamese vessels servicing the Japanese-owned Hakuryu-5 oil rig, located in Vietnam’s Block 06.1, some 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of Vietnam.
According to CSIS, the Hajing maneuvered between the vessels at high speed, passing within 100 meters (330 feet) of each ship and less than half a nautical mile from the rig.
Both incidents took place in disputed waters of the South China Sea that fall within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, the two think tanks said.
China has aggressively asserted its claims to the Spratlys and the rest of the South China Sea—which Vietnam refers to as the East Sea—based on its so-called “nine-dash” demarcation line that encompasses some 90 percent of the waters, including territory claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore.
Over the weekend, the U.S. State Department warned that China’s “repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states threaten regional energy security and undermine the free and open Indo-Pacific energy market.”
“The United States firmly opposes coercion and intimidation by any claimant to assert its territorial or maritime claims,” the statement said, urging Beijing to refrain from “bullying behavior.”
At Monday’s press briefing in Beijing, Geng Shuang slammed Washington for interfering in its sovereign affairs.
“For a long time, external forces including the U.S. have been making wanton remarks on this issue, stirring up troubles and sowing discord with ill intentions,” he said.
“Such behaviors will only disrupt the situation in the South China Sea and undermine regional peace and stability.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.