Cambodia’s government should launch a “full investigation” into a mysterious drone crash nearly three weeks ago in Koh Kong province, a regional analyst said Wednesday, following media reports that a team of Chinese military officials made a secret visit to the country ahead of the incident.
On Jan. 17, a Chinese-designed Cai Hong-92A (CH-92A) military surveillance drone, with a maximum range of 250 kilometers (155 miles) and up to 10 hours of flight time, crashed in Kiri Sakor district’s Koh Sdach commune, according to local media.
Cambodia’s Air Force denied any knowledge of the vehicle after the crash, and weeks later there remains little clarity about the origin of the drone and who may have been operating it to survey the country’s southern coast. While China has sold surveillance drones to a number of countries, it has never officially sold one to Cambodia.
Experts have said that the limited range of the CH-92A suggests it was launched within the country and intended to be operated discreetly, as it appears to have been fitted with a parachute for controlled descent landings.
On Tuesday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) published details from a leaked document it obtained which it said outlines a previously unannounced Dec. 20-24 visit to Cambodia by a Chinese “six-member Military Surveying & Mapping Delegation” as part of a bid to “enhance military cooperation between armed forces” of the two nations.
The schedule included plans to “investigate Ream base” in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, which was at the center of controversy last year after The Wall Street Journal in July cited U.S. and allied officials as confirming a secret deal to allow the Chinese to use part of the base for 30 years—with automatic renewals every 10 years after that—and to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.
The reported deal, which would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and allow it to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, was vehemently denied at the time by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said permitting foreign use of a military base in the country would “be in full contradiction to Cambodia’s constitution.”
According to Tuesday’s ABC report, the leaked document also included plans for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation to meet with 20 Cambodian troops who had recently completed a six-month surveying, mapping and navigation training class” in China, as well as a visit to a “satellite navigation and positioning reference station” in Siem Reap province.
Chinese military presence
ABC’s report quoted Kelvin Wong, the unmanned systems editor at U.K.-based intelligence monitor Jane’s Information Group, as saying that the events leading up to last month’s drone crash “appears to contradict the Cambodian Government’s recent promises that it would not allow Chinese military presence within the country.”
Wong called the drone “an ideal platform for training” Cambodians on with the PLA, although he was cautious about speculating on who might have been flying the vehicle when it crashed.
The drone crash also occurred about 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) from a site under development by China’s Union Development Group (UDG) on Koh Kong’s coast that a November 2018 report by Hong Kong’s Asia Times online news portal said is where Beijing may secretly be building a deep-water port naval base—a report that was later denied by Minister of Defense Tea Banh.
The increased ties between the militaries of Cambodia and China come as Phnom Penh has increasingly pivoted towards Beijing since finding itself ostracized by Western governments over significant rollbacks on democratic freedoms.
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, 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.
Call for probe
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday, analyst Meas Nee called for a “full investigation” by Cambodia’s government into who was operating the military drone when it crashed.
“The government has failed to respond [to concerns], creating serious suspicion over the downed drone,” he said.
Meas Nee said that the revelations in ABC’s report shed new light on issues of national security and sovereignty in Cambodia that the government must address, specifically with regard to the country’s relationship with China, and suggested that Hun Sen is more concerned with being transparent before Beijing than his own citizens.
“The government has defended itself saying it won’t allow Cambodia to fall under the control of any global superpower, but our suspicions have grown amid an increase in the number of secret and official military visits between [Cambodia and China],” he said.
Tea Banh was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, but the defense minister told RFA on Jan. 22 that his officials are trying to determine the origin of the drone and how it was being used.
He said authorities initially believed the drone was owned and operated by UDG, but were assured by the company’s leadership that it was not.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.