China’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday again skirted claims it had struck a deal to gain exclusive military access to a Cambodian naval base, instead denying that it was “developing a military base” here.
Speaking at a press conference, Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian responded to a question that “mentioned that China is developing a military base in Cambodia,” he said.
“That is a rumor,” Wu said. “That is a false report.”
China and Cambodia cooperated on military training and logistical support, Wu added. “Such cooperation doesn’t target any third party.”
The Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported that Cambodia and China had secretly signed a pact this spring giving China exclusive rights to a Cambodian naval installation in Ream, near Sihanoukville, and “not far from a large airport now being constructed by a Chinese company.”
The report, which cited unnamed U.S. and “allied” officials, said a draft of the agreement “would allow China to use the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after that.”
The article did not say that the journalists had seen the agreement themselves.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior Cambodian officials have called the article “fake news” and “propaganda,” asserting that a Chinese military base on Cambodian soil would violate the nation’s Constitution, which forbids “any foreign military base on its territory.”
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on Wednesday reiterated previous statements on the issue, including concerns previously raised by U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph Felter about Ream.
Cambodia had requested “U.S. assistance in repairing a U.S.-funded, Cambodian navy tactical facility at Ream Naval Base” in January 2019, embassy spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg said. In June, Phnom Penh “withdrew the request without explanation.”
“This causes us to wonder if the Cambodian leaderships’ plans for Ream Naval Base include the possible hosting of foreign military assets and personnel on Cambodian soil,” Zeeberg said.
Zeeberg did not respond to a question about whether the U.S. would release evidence or documentation to show that China and Cambodia had signed an agreement on Chinese military use of the Ream base.
Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile abroad, said in a statement on Tuesday that his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) “deplores the fact that Cambodia is becoming a de facto Chinese colony,” due to the rapid rise in the number of “Chinese tourists, investors, traders and settlers, and the multiplication of all kinds of facilities exclusively serving Chinese needs and interests.”
Hun Sen’s government was “happy with this colonisation of Cambodia by China,” because of the “massive and unprecedented financial assistance” from China, without human rights or environmental caveats, Rainsy said.
“Hun Sen needs a massive Chinese presence — including a military component — to defend his autocratic power at any cost,” he claimed.
“For its part, China understandably wants to turn Cambodia into an outpost to implement its expansionist strategy which implies the building of military facilities such as the ones under construction in Cambodia,” the opposition leader said. “This will have far-reaching implications because it potentially jeopardizes peace and stability in the region.”
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Sok Eysan rejected Rainsy’s claims, saying the long-time rival of the ruling party was spreading falsehoods without evidence.
Eysan said Rainsy had previously accused the CPP of being “servants of Vietnam,” but was now accusing the ruling party of serving China.
“We have to understand that this outlawed rebel group,” he said, referring to the dissolved CNRP, “is a rebel group that creates exaggerated and fake news to twist the truth.”
Additional reporting by Matt Surrusco
Updated at 7:40 p.m. to note the question to which the U.S. Embassy did not respond.