News Article

US questioning Cambodia over its plans to host Chinese military

US offer to help repair a naval base refused by Cambodia, fueling speculation of Chinese moving in

A junior officer at the Pentagon proposed that Cambodia might plan to house Chinese military forces at its naval base.

The U.S. Joseph Felter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, provided the proposal to Cambodia’s National Defense Minister Tea Banh in a brief email last month.

Felter stated the ministry’s activities could suggest more significant intentions for a Chinese appearance at Ream Navy Base, a situation that would have substantial safety consequences for the region where China seeks to exert increasing impact.

Specifically, he asked why the Defense Ministry had backtracked in latest years on a U.S. request to refurbish structures at the facility in Preah Sihanouk province on the southeastern shore of Cambodia, the epicentre of substantial Chinese investment.

Viewed by the Nikkei Asian Review, the letter stated that when Felter toured the base in January, the deputy commander of Cambodia’s National Committee for Maritime Security Tactical Headquarters asked for the repairs.

These structures include a training facility and a shipping depot constructed with U.S. money. The boat depot, completed in 2017, was built to house six RHIB patrol boats donated to Cambodia by the U.S. Felter said funds were approved in April for the upgrade. However, in June, the Defense Ministry of Cambodia informed its American counterpart that the enhancements were “no longer needed.”

“I would significantly enjoy a more thorough understanding as to why these renovations, demanded by your employees, are no longer essential, and neither are your potential plans for these installations funded by the United States,” Felter stated.

“The 6 June 2019 invitation document has been sent throughout the U.S. government, fueling conjecture that this abrupt strategy shift could imply bigger opportunities for modifications at Ream Naval Base, especially those involving housing Chinese military vessels,” the email said.

“Over the previous 28 years, we have given substantial support and aid to the Cambodian military, and we aim to proceed to work together in fields of common interest.” Speculation has increased that China has plans for a foundation in Cambodia, by far its nearest partner within the ASEAN region.

However, attention has so far been concentrated on the province of Koh Kong, east of Preah Sihanouk.

There, a multi-billion tourism development by China’s Union Development Group (UDG) attracted doubts, with commentators stating a 3.2-km runway— the longest in Cambodia— and the project’s scheduled deep-sea port proposed it could become a forward-looking location for China’s armed forces.

The issues were sufficiently severe for the U.S. In a report last November, Vice President Mike Pence allegedly discussed the problem with Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia.

The accounts have been rejected by Chinese and Cambodia authorities, including Hun Sen, who referred to the country’s constitution banning foreign military bases on Cambodian soil.

Speaking to Nikkei on Monday, Defense Minister Tea Banh of Cambodia admitted getting the email from Felter, but refused that Cambodia was scheduled to visit a Chinese military force at Ream Naval Base.

He criticised Felter of “speaking off the cuff.” “The facility is constructed for Cambodians to work there,” he said.

“The[ details] are distorted,” he clarified from the proposal.

This evening, a call to spokespersons for the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh went unanswered.

A U.S. embassy spokesman said the U.S. The Defense Department had confirmed the document as real, but at this point, they were unable to provide any further remark.

At neighbouring Sihanoukville, host to the country’s only deep-sea port, the latest port call by three Chinese warships took place in January.

The seas around Ream’s foundation are currently only shallow enough to fit tiny naval ships, which means that any housing of frigates or destroyers would involve dredging.

In latest years, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, who has been in authority for over 30 years, has shifted closer and closer to Beijing, ensuring billions of USD for infrastructure initiatives under the Belt and Road Initiative. Simultaneously, the state has stepped in to increase Western criticism of democratic backlash.

China’s development in Cambodia has fueled an enormous building boom, especially in Sihanoukville, Preah Sihanouk province’s primary town.

The once-sleepy town was converted into the thousands of Chinese tourists now flocking to the coastal location by a slew of casinos and restaurants.

And while in latest years it has supported significant infrastructure initiatives such as dams for hydroelectric power, specialists claim Beijing’s length has concentrated mainly on the army of Cambodia.

The country’s army assistance included millions of USD worth of guns, cars and equipment, including a military academy that trains volunteers to study in China.

The growing Chinese influence has also corresponded with declining safety ties with Western counterparts like the U.S. While Cambodia held the fourth iteration of a huge joint-military practice workout with the People’s Liberation Army previously this year, Angkor Sentinel and other U.S. military aid programs were permanently banned in 201.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at New South Wales University and safety specialist in Southeast Asia, said the proposed schemes “match the description” of Beijing’s attitude to the region’s maritime influence.

Whether the proposals take the shape of a continuous Chinese facility or not, Thayer said that China could “incrementally” boost its location existence and expand its regional power projection.

Any lodging in Cambodia of Chinese military resources would also trigger ASEAN “disarray,” he clarified.

Several group participants have conflicting demands in the South China Sea with China, including Vietnam, which has previously had near army ties with their peers in Cambodia.

“We understand from the Pacific, where China has rejected recommendations and provides to lesser nations, so it would suit the Cambodian template of seeking entry,” said Thayer.

“You begin an agreement with Cambodia and maintain experimenting and pressing it so that when you want to sign up, there is no longer any opposition. China could do this incrementally, and you check you remain over, you have it for lengthy trips, you do combined drills and maintain pulling in and out, constructing equipment to be prepared to serve Chinese vessels.”

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