Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) inspects troops with his son Lieutenant-General Hun Manet. Photo: Handout / AFP

Back in November 2018, I co-wrote a story with Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia editor of Asia Times, that correctly predicted US Vice-President Mike Pence would raise concerns about China trying building a naval base in Cambodia when he visited Southeast Asia the following weekend. That he did, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen affirmed days later that he had seen the Pence letter. But Hun Sen rejected claims that the Chinese military would be allowed to use an enormous Chinese investment zone in Koh Kong province for naval purposes.

Our story was immediately attacked by the Phnom Penh government as “fake news,” and ourselves as purveyors of it. Hun Sen called our allegations “evil rumors.” Royal Academy of Cambodia president Sok Touch, who positions himself on the frontline of the ruling party’s praetorian guard, said it was “psychological warfare.” The tergiversator Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, claimed “the topic was raised by a ‘whistleblower’ to put the focus on Cambodia,” which, though incorrect, was a rather honest admission of how the government thought the information came to us. A whistleblower, after all, is actually in possession of truths, he seemed to have forgotten.

In a letter published by the Khmer Times we were called “unprofessional and careless,” and the headline bemoaned that “speculations cost nation great damage.” The writer of the letter was rather retiring when he or she admitted that “there is nothing I can do to stop foreign reporters from expressing their opinions in the way Mr Hutt and Mr Crispin did.” No, you cannot, fortunately, though the government wishes it could have.

Days after the article was published several government sources said they would no longer speak to me. Those who continued to answer my calls warned me to tone down my political reporting – “or else” was the implicit corollary. Because I didn’t, they eventually stopped taking my calls, too.

Every month that passed seemed to see the publication of yet another article making similar allegations, while the US administration became ever more greatly fascinated by the topic, with it finding its way into important Defense Department reports. But things exploded this weekend when The Wall Street Journal reported that a deal had been agreed between Cambodia and China some months earlier for the Cambodian naval base in Preah Sihanouk province – the Ream naval base on the Gulf of Thailand – to be exclusively used by the Chinese military.

Read: Cambodia, China ink secret naval port deal: report

This was different from the allegation I first made in November, though not unconnected. The location where I was told a base might be located, a US$3.8 billion Chinese-led investment zone in Koh Kong province, which encompasses roughly a fifth of Cambodia’s coastline, is not too far away from the Ream naval base, so it would make sense for both to be used for complementary reasons by the ironically named Liberation Navy.

Not one major international newspaper has failed to cover the new report. But I would add a few things to the conversation that aren’t always present in media coverage.

Typically, as in the past, the Cambodian government rushed to deny the Wall Street Journal story. “This is the worst-ever made-up news against Cambodia,” Hun Sen told the government mouthpiece Fresh News on Monday. He then made a telling statement. “No such thing could happen,” he said, referring to the deal, “because hosting foreign military bases is against the Cambodian constitution.”

Let’s linger on this comment for a moment. In almost every statement Hun Sen has made about allegations of a Chinese navy base for almost a year, he has seldom said it cannot happen because he doesn’t want it to happen. Nor has he ever come out and said that it would be against the interests of Cambodian foreign policy, or that it would put the country in a perilous situation as the US and China ramp up their strategic competition.

In fact, remarkably for a politician used to running his mouth and taking a cavalier approach to truth, he has stuck to script on this issue. It is always, he says, the matter that a Chinese naval base cannot be allowed in Cambodia because of the constitution, which bans foreign bases and imposes strict neutrality. But that is a flimsy line of argument, though perhaps a self-serving one in the long term. The ruling party, after all, has only been too happy to amend the constitution in recent years to suit its needs, and many of the already-passed amendments go against other parts of the constitution or infringe upon Cambodia’s application of international law.

Rhona Smith, UN special rapporteur on the human-rights situation in Cambodia, noted in early 2018 that the imposition of a new lese majeste law is “incompatible with Cambodia’s obligations under international human rights law,” while Human Rights Watch stated that the “amendments to five articles of the Constitution … would have grave implications for Cambodian citizens if passed into law.”

It isn’t that difficult to imagine, then, that Hun Sen could use his complete control of the National Assembly and the Senate (since 2018 Cambodia is very much a one-party state) to pass a constitutional amendment allowing for foreign military bases on Cambodian soil. Since his script has always been that, at present, a Chinese base is against the constitution, a constitutional change would allow him to defend the move later on. And, if he were so inclined, the amendment could be passed within a matter of weeks. The annual report issued by the office of the director of US national intelligence Dan Coats stated that “Cambodia’s slide toward autocracy … opens the way for a constitutional amendment that could lead to a Chinese military presence in the country.”

Read: US-Cambodia relations approach crisis point

The second thing to think about is why US officials are so interested in this topic. Granted, with Chinese “containment” now the de facto stance of American foreign policy, China taking a new naval base is big news. Indeed, China only has one overseas military base at present, in Djibouti, though officials in Beijing haven’t stuttered in calling for more. One cannot question that the US is so interested in Cambodia right now (and prepared to sanction the government for its democratic backsliding, with the Cambodia Democracy Act passing the House of Representatives this month) because of China.

If Hun Sen is concerned about his country yet again becoming a proxy – as it fatefully was in the 1960s and ’70s – in the eyes of policymakers in Washington, he is blindly leading Cambodia down that path. But because such intelligence is being made so public, it is arguably a sign that the US thinks Cambodia can change direction. Silence would be worse. It is a public ticking off; an invitation to turn back before going too far.

If Hun Sen is concerned about his country yet again becoming a proxy – as it fatefully was in the 1960s and ’70s – in the eyes of policymakers in Washington, he is blindly leading Cambodia down that path

Which raises my last point. Can Cambodia turn back? Is it any longer neutral? First things first, constitutionally it is supposed to. While the ruling party has clearly infringed the very first part of the very first article of the constitution, which states that Cambodia should be ruled according to “the principles of liberal democracy and pluralism,” it is debatable whether it is sticking to the second part of Article 1: “The Kingdom of Cambodia shall be an independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned country.”

Quite clearly, it is now aligned with Beijing. Cambodia has regularly defended China’s interests within meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings, and at times against the consensus of all other bloc members, and suspended joint military operations with the US in 2017 so it could perform them exclusively with China. But does that mean it is no longer “permanently neutral”? Allowing the Chinese military to station itself in a Cambodian naval base certainly would. Questions about whether Phnom Penh actually has the power to deny Beijing a request like this, however, can wait for another day.

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