Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday dismissed U.S. concerns that he would grant China the right to build a military base in his country, saying such a move would violate the constitution.
During a meeting of his Council of Ministers, Hun Sen noted that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn on the sideline of the ASEAN Summit in Singapore last week and expressed concerns about the possible opening of a foreign military base on Cambodian soil.
“I also received a letter from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence raising concerns of the possible presence of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia in the future,” the prime minister said.
“I want to make clear to our compatriots and foreign friends that Cambodia will not violate its own constitution. Cambodia’s Constitution prohibits the presence of foreign armies or military bases inside the country … Cambodia will not permit any foreign military base for a navy, army or air force.”
Hun Sen said he would never allow “foreigners to fight one another on Cambodian territory” and slammed what he called a “disinformation campaign” against Cambodia, adding that he will make his position clear in a written response to Pence.
On Nov. 15, Hong Kong’s Asia Times online news portal cited unnamed diplomatic sources in a report as saying that a 45,000 hectare (111,200-acre) Chinese naval base is being built in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, “though it remains unclear how far construction has progressed.”
In a press release issued the same day, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that Sullivan had raised the issue with Prak Sokhonn, saying that such an agreement could “significantly affect” relations between Phnom Penh and Washington.
The ministry said Prak Sokhonn “categorically dismissed this as a rumor more than likely spun out of a significant increase of Chinese investment in the area” and said the Cambodian government would “neither allow a foreign military base on its territory nor likewise allow its military to operate [in military bases] abroad” except within the framework of the United Nations.
Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense followed with a statement on Nov. 17, calling the Asia Times report “fake news” and part of a “foreign campaign to mislead the public and the international community with the intention of destroying the country’s independence and neutrality.”
Chinese investment has poured into Cambodia in recent years and has caused some Cambodians to question what type of influence Beijing might have over their government. China and Cambodia have recently held joint military exercises and Beijing has pledged to help fund a modernization of the Southeast Asian nation’s military.
If such a naval base were built on the Gulf of Thailand, it would allow China to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims much of, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.
In 2016, the Hague-Based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines in its challenge to China’s efforts in the region, but China has rejected the ruling and continues to expand structures including landing strips on islands it has claimed.
When asked on Monday about reports of China’s plan to open a military base in Cambodia, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang only said that “cooperation between [Cambodia and China] is open and transparent which targets no third party and gives no ground for criticism,” adding that he hoped the U.S. “could view it in a correct way.”
Political commentator Kim Sok told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday that Hun Sen is “hiding the truth” about plans for a Chinese naval base to avoid pressure from the U.S. and Cambodia’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“He fears that such a reaction [from the U.S.] won’t lead to just words, but may also spark prompt measures [against his government], as the issue could create insecurity within the region,” he said.
Meas Nee, another observer, called Hun Sen’s comments “an appropriate response from the government that it must make in order to defend itself” against the allegations, lest it face “pressure from the U.S. and Western nations.”
But he added that the statement was also necessary because the reports could “affect the popularity of the government within the country, as relations between Cambodians and Chinese have not gone so well in the past,” and noted “rising dissatisfaction among Cambodians against the Chinese” as a result of their influence in Cambodia.
A third political commentator named Ly Srey Sros said that Hun Sen’s government routinely denies reports that paint it in a bad light without bothering to investigate the claims.
“I am concerned about this issue because when the Chinese come to Cambodia, surely they request authorization to build something,” she said.
“I believe there may be some secret actions carried out by Chinese technicians claiming to cooperate with Cambodia, and they are trying to hide them from Hun Sen. It’s not good that Hun Sen is so quick to deny the reports.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.