Speculation that Cambodia had ceded military control of a port in Koh Kong province reached a fever pitch in the weeks following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attendance of the Asean Summit in Singapore earlier this month.
The news left many wondering whether there were nefarious voices turning a non-issue into a global security concern.
Asia Times started the ball rolling on November 15 (the last day of the summit) with an article entitled “Cambodia at the centre of a new cold war”.
It relied on an unnamed source and a study funded by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies to assert that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy would set up a naval base on Cambodian soil with the aim to assert its dominance over the South China Sea.
Much of the suspicion and paranoia stemmed from the fact that deepwater ports have enough depth to service PLA Navy vessels, like destroyers and frigates.
But critics must understand that ports around the world are competing with one another and trying to build deeper facilities to lure large cargo ships to their shores. The financial windfall is staggering.
One of the expressed goals of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is to reduce the costs associated with exporting Chinese goods. This is because living standards in mainland China will improve and workers can earn higher wages.
Hence the allegations of proposed naval medical facilities in the port area are completely unfounded as loans which fund BRI initiatives are often conditional on infrastructure investments like hospitals, roads and water facilities.
For their part, Phnom Penh and Beijing denied that any deal had been reached to re-designate the $3.8 billion Dara Sakor Beachside Resort as a naval base.
As we already know, the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party leader, Sam Rainsy, had hired a US public relations firm to disrupt the election process in Cambodia.
Hence, many in the country wonder if there is a coordinated effort by third parties to deter the government from partnering with the Chinese by planting stories and recycling old quotes to make something out of nothing.
The alleged PLA Naval base on Cambodian soil could be part of Rainsy’s disinformation strategy.
In the meantime, upon his return to the capital from Singapore, Hun Sen was greeted with a letter from US Vice Presodemt Mike Pence which outlined US concerns regarding a possible PLA Navy base in Koh Kong.
The prime minister categorically denied all such allegations in a Facebook address.
“The constitution of Cambodia bans the presence of foreign troops or military bases in its territory. Whether naval forces, infantry forces or air forces,” said Hun Sen.
Many analyst have said it is important to note that the US objections to China’s alleged plans to construct a base along Cambodia’s gateway to the Gulf of Thailand comes as the Western power’s influence in Asia is beginning to wane.
Perhaps the US is paranoid over China’s growing sphere of influence in the region, which could ultimately undermine its own geopolitical ambitions.
The US deems the South China Sea as international waters. But as China asserts itself in the region, its actions in the South China Sea have become a symbol of dominance in the waning days of US hegemony in Asia.
Let’s not forget that China doesn’t have a history of hosting military bases on foreign soil.
However, the US, on the other hand, operates bases all around the world like in Guantanamo, Europe and throughout the South Pacific. Perhaps the Americans should look inward before criticising Cambodia?
Husain Haider is a Canadian national and senior journalist with The Phnom Penh Post