Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Monday that he had received a letter from US Vice President Mike Pence raising concerns over an alleged Chinese naval base in Koh Kong province.
He said he would explain to Pence that it was not necessary for Cambodia to violate its constitution as the Kingdom was not at war, and in any case had “enough forces to protect its independence”, and that he rejected “any ideology of competition” that could “split Cambodia”.
Last week, Hong Kong-based online news site Asia Times reported under the headline “Cambodia at the centre of a new cold war” that “since 2017, China had lobbied Cambodia for a port in Koh Kong on the Gulf of Thailand”. It said “it remains unclear how far construction has progressed”.
The article pointed to a 45,000ha economic land concession in Koh Kong province awarded to Chinese company Union Development Group.
The report was strongly denied by the Cambodian Ministry of National Defence, while the Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn dismissed it as a rumour.
Before a government meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on Monday, Hun Sen added his voice to those rejecting the speculation.
“I have received a letter from Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States, raising concerns over news that there was a Chinese naval base in Cambodia."
“I would like to clarify to compatriots and foreign friends – is it necessary for Cambodia to violate its constitution?” Hun Sen asked, explaining that the Cambodian Constitution forbids the presence of foreign troops in the Kingdom and its troops in other countries.
“I will reply to the letter from the US Vice President to show Cambodia’s position regarding its Constitution, which bans foreign military bases in Cambodia, no matter whether naval or for the army or air force,” he said.
Hun Sen said it was unnecessary for the Kingdom to allow foreign military bases as Cambodia was not at war with any country and, if it was, then Cambodia was capable of defending itself.
“Secondly, I raise a question … why does Cambodia need foreign forces on its territory? Who is Cambodia fighting? Cambodia has enough forces to protect its independence and sovereignty. There is no need for assistance from foreign troops,” he said.
He added he would not allow any kind of war on Cambodian territory on grounds of ideology or to “test weapons”.
“We utterly reject any ideology of competition which could split Cambodians and see Cambodians killed like in the past. We utterly reject competition [that could result in] Cambodia taken as an arena [for foreign countries] to test their weapons,” he said firmly.
The prime minister said he welcomed foreign competition in the economic and social sectors and that Cambodia would cooperate with other countries in the holding of military drills to combat terrorism and to sharpen rescue operations.
David Hutt, one of the article’s co-writers said on Twitter on Monday that he wrote the article based on diplomatic sources saying they expected Pence would raise concerns with Hun Sen.
“Our story did not say that foreign troops are already based in Cambodia, despite some coverage of our article. But, based on information provided by sources, it said that this was a possibility and the location we described could be where it takes place,” he wrote.
He denied his article was intended to “incite” or tarnish Cambodia’s reputation.
“Our article, unlike what a [government] spokesman claimed, was not intended “to incite and affect the reputation of Cambodia’s defence sector.”
Instead, it only raised questions about the extent of Cambodia-China relations, and the effect of this upon Cambodian sovereignty,” he said.
“Our intention was to point out the problems Cambodia could face, with US-China relations worsening, if in the future it allows foreign troops to base themselves [in Cambodia].”
Sok Toch, the president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said: “If [the news] is true, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) must hold a referendum to see whether the people agree [with such a development].
“[The] CPP won 125 National Assembly seats from the support of the people, so if they don’t inform the people, this would be a constitutional coup.
“[Their power] is born out of the people, not through a coup. So a referendum would be needed to get support from the people,” he said.