Joint Cambodia-China military exercises raise dust in a file photo. Photo: Cambodian Government/ Handout

In a now common refrain, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe publicly denied at a recent defense forum that Beijing intends to build a naval base in Cambodia.

It was Beijing’s latest response to widespread speculation that a China-backed eco-tourism project in Cambodia’s coastal Koh Kong province is secretly designed to have military purposes.

“There is no such thing as for China to establish its military presence in Cambodia. There is no such thing out there,” said Wei at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore last weekend, an event also attended by Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh.

Debates about the issue have raged since last November when this journalist co-authored a piece for Asia Times that correctly predicted US Vice President Mike Pence would raise the allegations in a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen during his tour of the region.

Several US officials and a Defense Department report published last December have stressed that Washington takes the allegations seriously.

If built, a naval facility in Cambodia would potentially give China access to a new southern flank in the South China Sea, where China is locked in a rising dispute with the US over freedom of navigation issues.

China’s speculated intent to actually base its troops in Cambodia, strongly denied by Phnom Penh, would certainly put the region on edge at a time pressure is building to take sides between the US and China.

Cambodian soldiers stand by as Chinese naval vessels dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, January 2019. Photo: Twitter

Local law currently forbids the stationing of foreign troops on Cambodian soil.

But while the functional state of China-Cambodia military-to-military relations is still largely opaque, it is clear that Beijing is now primus inter pares – top among Phnom Penh’s strategic allies.

After Cambodia suspended joint military operations with the US in 2017, Beijing stepped up as the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ (RCAF) main creditor. Last June, Beijing gave US$100 million in military aid to Cambodia, on top of rich donations in previous years.

Sihanoukville, a coastal city, hosted three Chinese warships in January. Meanwhile, the largest joint military exercise between the two countries, codenamed Golden Dragon, took place in Kampot province in March.

Cambodia’s shift towards Beijing comes as the US and China ramp up their trade war into a far more serious arms race over technology and military might.

China’s decision to send its defense minister to last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue summit for the first time in eight years spoke volumes, as did Wei’s comments that China is willing to “fight until the end” against the US.

China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe attends the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 2, 2019. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Bradley Murg, assistant professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University, reckons that while there is “extremely strong interest in Washington” over Cambodia’s political affairs, most of interest is centered on “the development of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia.”

“The topic of Koh Kong is increasingly a core, almost dominant theme in discussions of the future of US-Cambodian relations in my view. I would go so far as to say that it is now the primary focal point as to how the future of the relationship will develop,” he said.

An updated Indo-Pacific Strategy report released by the US Department of Defense in early June states that Washington remains “concerned about reports that China is seeking to establish bases or a military presence on its [Cambodian] coast, a development that would challenge regional security and signal a clear shift in Cambodia’s foreign policy orientation.”

The latest annual report from the office of the director of US national intelligence, Dan Coats, likewise stressed that “Cambodia’s slide toward autocracy…opens the way for a constitutional amendment that could lead to a Chinese military presence in the country.”

“It seems that China is hurrying to complete its Union Development Group project in Koh Kong; this is a very strategic location should it magically become a [forward operating base] for China’s Navy,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

“The US sees this as the tip of the spear. Stop China now before it’s too late. Cambodia hosting any kind of [forward operating base] for China is unacceptable to the US. Not intervening is being asleep at the wheel for the US,” he added.

Charles Edel, who served on the US Secretary of State’s policy planning staff from 2015 to 2017, wrote in a May 9 article at War On The Rocks that satellite imagery appears to show that the “Union Development Group [the Chinese company behind the project] has been rushing to complete a runway in Cambodia’s remote Koh Kong province on the southwestern coast.”

Recent satellite imagery depicting an airport runway in Cambodia’s remote Koh Kong province is long enough to support Chinese military reconnaissance, fighter, and bomber aircraft. Source: War on Rocks/EO Browser/Twitter

“It appears long enough to support military aircraft and matches the length of the runways built on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to support military reconnaissance, fighter and bomber aircraft,” he added.

Asia Times has reviewed satellite imagery of this area for months and, although development has quickened, interviews with experts on Chinese military installations have not provided adequate proof that the site is definitely for military purposes.

Some experts say the runway could serve dual commercial and military purposes, while others assert that its distinguishing features, including its oversized runway length and juts, could be just coincidence and do not necessarily point to military applications.

Despite repeated warnings from Washington, Cambodian Ambassador to the US Chum Sounry said in an interview that “Cambodia-US defense ties have been mended,” a statement that contradicts what many see as still frosty relations after the severance of joint exercises in 2017.

Chum Sounry pointed to the visits made to Cambodia by Joseph Felter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, in January, and by Colonel Scott Burnside, of US Indo-Pacific Command, in March, as proof of warming ties.

He also noted that Hun Manet, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son who was promoted last year to Deputy Commander-in-Chief of RCAF and commander of the army, was invited to the US in April to take part in a counterterrorism conference.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, front left, and by his son Lieutenant General Hun Manet, right rear, Phnom Penh. January 24, 2019. Photo: Handout/AFP

Hun Manet, seen by many as Hun Sen’s heir apparent when the long-ruling leader eventually steps aside, also joined the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s 37-member Permanent Committee, the party’s key decision-making body, for the first time last year.

The US Embassy in Phnom Penh, meanwhile, has maintained a tough line on Hun Sen’s anti-democratic clampdown, epitomized by the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision to ban the main Cambodian National Rescue Party opposition.

Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, was arrested in September 2017 on treason charges of allegedly trying to foment a US-backed “color revolution” to overthrow Hun Sen’s government. He remains in pre-trial detention.

“We will not resume full military cooperation with Cambodia until the Cambodian government makes substantial progress on increasing the political space and restoring full democracy, including by dropping all charges against Kem Sokha and allowing civil society and media to operate independently,” said Michael Newbill, chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Cambodia.

Even if full military cooperation is not on the cards in the near-term, it appears that US officials see military-to-military channels as a possible way to influence politics while relations with Hun Sen’s CPP-led government remain strained.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan responded angrily after Felter’s visit in January during which he reportedly discussed politics with Cambodian military officials.

“We cannot accept it that a US military representative came here to talk with the Cambodian military on political issues,” the spokesman told local media. Felter also is believed to have discussed ways of re-starting joint US-Cambodia military exercises during his visit.

Even so, Cambodia is at rising risk of being seen as a Chinese satellite at a time when pressure is mounting for regional states to take superpower sides, particularly in relation to the South China Sea.

Cambodia’s armed forces on display in Phnom Penh, July 25, 2018. Photo: Twitter

But it isn’t just the US that is trying to rekindle military ties with Cambodia to diminish its dependence on China. Indeed, Hun Manet appears to be hedging the country’s strategic bets as Sino-American rivalry threatens to tilt towards conflict.

Since February, Hun Manet has led military delegations to China, Russia and Thailand; participated in a counterterrorism conference in the US; and accompanied a military delegation on a four-day visit to Vietnam, where he met with the most senior defense officials in Hanoi.

After Hun Manet’s visit to Vietnam last month, a Communist Party outlet noted that Chief of the General Staff Phan Van Giang “stressed that defense relations have always been one of the most important pillars of Vietnam-Cambodia relations.”

This comes as Vietnam, Cambodia’s historic military ally, has aligned itself closer to the US for protection against China, which Hanoi claims is militarizing contested parts of the South China Sea.

Yet Hun Sen’s government’s extolment of “permanent neutrality and non-alignment” often appears more rhetoric than reality in light of how far it has swung behind China.

Phnom Penh clearly doesn’t want to be drawn any closer to the fray of increasingly hawkish defense officials in the US and China. As with Vietnam, Cambodia clearly doesn’t want to become a proxy in a new Cold War.

But as speculation runs high around the emerging China-backed facility in southwest Cambodia, and unless Phnom Penh shifts ties somewhat back towards the US, the risk is rising that it will become just that if US-China tensions boil over into conflict.

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