The U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce have issued respective advisories over risk exposure to US businesses operating in Cambodia. The Treasury Department also announced sanctions on Cambodia's two high ranking military officials i.e. Admiral Tea Vinh, Commander of Cambodian Navy, and Chau Phirun, Director-General of the Defense Ministry's Material and Technical Services Department accusing them of “corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and the Cambodian public’s faith in their government institutions and public processes, including by using their political influence and official power for personal benefit. ”
The latter is in the context of Ream Naval Base facilities wherein Chau Phirun is blamed for gaining “profit from activities regarding the construction and updating” in 2020 and 2021. The US has identified a few more Cambodian government officials who are suspected to have “conspired to inflate the cost of facilities at Ream Naval Base and personally benefit from the proceeds”.
In May 2021, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released satellite imageries showing that a US funded facility had been demolished and the space cleared to build military-naval infrastructure by a Chinese company. The US was naturally perturbed. Perhaps what was more worrying to the US was that two new buildings by the Chinese company had come up in a matter of weeks.
Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed accusation that Cambodia and China had signed a secret deal to allow Chinese military presence at Ream Naval Base. He even called out such insinuations as “very unfair for Cambodia” and “unfair for China.” However, the US was not convinced and sanctions against Cambodia were sure to come. It is fair to assume that Cambodia was prepared for such an eventuality.
At the heart of the ongoing politico-diplomatic-military imbroglio is the Ream Naval Base which is suspected to be undergoing major modernisation with Chinese support. The US has alleged that there is lack of transparency about the project at Ream and it has long-term implications for the Cambodian people. Furthermore, “any foreign military presence at Ream would run counter to Cambodia’s constitution and undermine regional security.”
As expected, there were reactions from Beijing over US sanctions against Cambodia. During a regular press briefing Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stated that his country “consistently opposes unilateral sanctions by the U.S. under so-called long-arm jurisdiction…The mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Cambodia brooks no external interference.” Global Times, a Chinese media outlet with close association with the government carried a commentary accusing the US of deliberately “driving a wedge by choreographing fake news about the so-called China's military presence in Cambodia” and that it is “stepping up efforts to promote its Indo-Pacific strategy”.
Military related infrastructure development in and around Sihanoukville, Koh Kong including at Dara Sakor have been in news for the last few years. In June this year, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned that any Chinese engagement in the development of the Ream Naval Base “would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations.”
Cambodia has defended Chinese support for the developments naval base and Defence Minister Tea Banh was quoted as saying stated "(China's) contribution to the development of the Ream port is to upgrade the Cambodian defence sector in the maritime sector or to give Cambodia a base to have a suitable place, a workshop for repairing ships, a suitable port for docking”. Furthermore, “this help comes without strings attached,”
Chinese maritime related infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean have attracted international attention. It has financed-supported commercial ports in the region and these dual-use facilities support the Chinese naval strategy and PLA Navy’s operations. In South Asia the Chinese supported maritime-naval projects are designated as ‘String of Pearls’ and PLA Navy has access arrangements with Pakistan at Karachi and Gwadar that allow it to operate for long durations in the Arabian Sea. India has consistently highlighted the issue as it impacts on its security. China also has a naval facility at Djibouti that can support deployment of its aircraft carrier and expeditionary ships.
Although Cambodia would benefit enormously by receiving Chinese naval hardware such as ships and aircraft, and improve its military capability, it is not known who these would be targeted against. It has friendly relations with its immediate neighbours and does not stake claims in the South China.
Be that as it may, there are fears that strategic tensions between the US and China in the South China Sea could now spill into adjacent waters. It would be prudent that Cambodia reconsider the establishment of any foreign military base on its territory. It is not just for its own sovereign considerations, but also it has the responsibility to ensure regional security and peace.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.