Cambodia has denied a report that it has reached a secret agreement to allow China to station its armed forces at a coastal naval base.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that Cambodia had agreed to allow China exclusive access to part of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, citing officials from the United States and allied nations who were familiar with the matter.
Such an arrangement would enhance China’s ability to assert its territorial claims and economic interests in the contested South China Sea, but challenge other Southeast Asian nations and US allies.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, rubbished the report.
“This is the worst-ever made up news against Cambodia,” Hun Sen told the pro-government website Fresh News on Monday.
“No such thing could happen because hosting foreign military bases is against the Cambodian constitution,” he said.
Cambodian defence ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat told Reuters the report was “made up and baseless”.
China is Hun Sen’s strongest regional ally and has poured billions of dollars in development assistance and loans into Cambodia through its Belt and Road Initiative, as well as other bilateral initiatives.
The BRI was unveiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, and aims to develop a sprawling network of land and sea links with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
A flood of Chinese commercial ventures, including casinos and special economic zones, have sprung up in Cambodia in recent years.
The US Defense Department suggested earlier this month that China might be attempting to gain a military foothold in Cambodia in a letter to the country’s government asking why it had turned down an offer to repair a naval base.
The State Department urged Cambodia in a statement to reject such an arrangement, saying the nation had a “constitutional commitment to its people to pursue an independent foreign policy”.
“We are concerned that any steps by the Cambodian government to invite a foreign military presence in Cambodia would threaten the coherence and centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in coordinating regional developments, and disturb peace and stability in Southeast Asia,” the statement said.
Cambodia denied reports last November that Beijing had been lobbying the Southeast Asian country since 2017 for a naval base that could host frigates, destroyers and other vessels of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy.