Can Cambodia deny China access to South China Sea?

A setback to China’s access to South China Sea or a setback to Indian strategy in the Pacific? Let’s find out below! 

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Friday that his government will not allow any foreign military bases in its territory and called media reports that China is seeking a naval base there, “fake news.”

Hun Sen, who is on a three-day visit to Vietnam, insisted at a news briefing with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, that the Cambodian Constitution does not permit foreign military bases. “I want to emphasize to you that the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia does not allow any country to set up military bases in Cambodia,” Hun Sun said through a translator.

Asia Times reported last month that China has lobbied Cambodia since 2017 for a base in the southwestern province of Koh Kong in the Gulf of Thailand. Hun Sen dismissed the report.

“There has been distorting information over the past month that there are preparations to build military establishments in Cambodia,” he said. “I want to say and I have just told Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and the Vietnamese delegation that this is fake news and there’s no such thing happening in Cambodia.”

Asia Times said the alleged naval base is part of a $3.8 billion tourism development named Dara Sakor Beachside Resort led by a Chinese company. It said the project reportedly includes a deep-water port, an international airport and manufacturing facilities.

It is located in the Gulf of Thailand but has direct access to the South China Sea, most of which is claimed by China. China in recent years has built seven artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Island chain and placed military equipment on some of them, raising alarm among other countries in the region and in the United States.

A photograph of Chinese Naval Vessels from the 70th anniversary

In reality however, there exists an undisclosed military pact between China and Cambodia. It forms another significant example of China pursuing dual-use infrastructure projects in the Asia-Pacific – while simultaneously denying the existence of such projects. Moreover, Hun Sen’s denial of the deal demonstrates that the Cambodian government, once viewed by Western countries as a potential ally in the region, is growing ever closer to China. Lastly, Chinese access to Ream base marks another step towards a looming rivalry with India in the Pacific region. India itself is pursuing a deep-water port at Sambang, Indonesia, at the entrance to the Malacca Strait, India might see the advantages of its presence there reduced if China encroaches on the Strait via Cambodia, without having to rely on ships stationed at Hainan island overly.

Chinese-Cambodian agreement appears to be more agreeable towards China than similar agreements it has concluded in the wider region. It also reflects how dependent  Hun Sen’s government has become in Beijing. Cambodia, although still the recipient of large amounts of development aid from Western countries such as the US and the EU, has increasingly sidelined its relations with these countries in favour of proximity to Beijing – most likely because its loans are coming with no strings attached with regards to human rights and functioning democratic institutions. Over the past two years alone, the Cambodian government has accepted more than $600 million in loans as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

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