PRC creating military foothold in Cambodia despite denials

PRC creating military foothold in Cambodia despite denials

Top Stories | Jan 25, 2020:


Mounting evidence shows that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is building both a naval base and a military-grade airstrip in Cambodia, but Cambodian officials continue to maintain that it simply isn’t so.

Workers are building a large airport in Dara Sakor, 65 kilometers northwest of the country’s Ream Naval Base. A private Chinese company is building the airport that has a 99-year lease, according to multiple reports.

“Why would the Chinese show up in the middle of a jungle to build a runway?” Sophal Ear, a political scientist in Los Angeles told The New York Times newspaper. “This will allow China to project its air power through the region, and it changes the whole game.”

The airport’s 3,200-meter runway is long enough for ultra-large passenger planes such as the Airbus A380 to take off and land. The runway is longer than the 3,000-meter strip at Phnom Penh and longer than the 2,500-meter runway at the airport in Siem Reap, a popular tourist destination, according to the Nikkei Asian Review website.

Satellite images show what appear to be construction of special runway turns needed for quick takeoffs and landings by military aircraft, especially fighter jets. The construction company building the airport maintains that the runway is only for tourism.

At the Ream Naval Base, Cambodia has reportedly agreed to build two new piers, one for use by the PRC’s navy and the other for Cambodia, according to The Wall Street Journal newspaper. The naval installation will also allow Chinese personnel to carry weapons and Cambodian passports, the Journal reported. Cambodians will reportedly have to have PRC permission to enter the 25-hectare Chinese section of the 77-hectare installation. (Pictured: Cambodian naval personnel walk with journalists during a government-organized media tour in July 2019 to the Ream naval base in Preah Sihanouk province.)

The airport and naval base operations would give the PRC added leverage in enforcing territorial claims in the South China Sea. They would also enable the PRC to pressure U.S. allies in Southeast Asia, as well as expand its influence in the Malacca Strait.

The PRC has been lobbying Cambodia since 2017 for the naval base, reported the Asia Times, a Hong Kong-based English newspaper. The paper said the base could host frigates, destroyers and other ships of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Reuters news service quoted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in November 2018 as saying that there would never be a foreign military base in his country. The PRC, however, is Hun Sen’s strongest regional ally and has spent billions of dollars in development assistance and loans in Cambodia as part of China’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the policy in 2013 as a means of expanding its influence and culture with a gigantic network of land and sea links with Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Critics charge that such projects typically employ debt-trap diplomacy and mostly benefit the PRC, financially and strategically.

The PRC has been expanding its worldwide military influence since 2017, when it opened its first foreign military post in the East African nation of Djibouti. At the time, it called the post a naval “logistics support facility.” It has also built seven heavily fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea. At least three of the islands have landing strips.

Cambodia is not the only place in Asia where the PRC’s economic motives are being questioned. The EurAsian Times digital news platform reports that Pakistan owes China at least U.S. $10 billion for the construction work at the port in Gwadar and other projects. One U.S. official said the PRC is using its “predatory economics” to expand its global influence.