Thu, Jul 25, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The US fears a huge Cambodian resort might become a Chinese naval base

Encompassing 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline, the China-backed Dara Sakor investment zone is unlike any other in the Southeast Asian nation

By Philip Heijmans  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain People

Along pristine Cambodian beaches, past parades of elephants in its largest national park, sits an area half the size of Singapore that is raising alarm bells among military strategists in the US and beyond.

Dara Sakor, a US$3.8 billion China-backed investment zone encompassing 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline, is unlike any other in the developing Southeast Asian nation.

Controlled by a Chinese company with a 99-year lease, it features phased plans for an international airport, a deep-water seaport and an industrial park, along with a luxury resort complete with power stations, water treatment plants and medical facilities.

The size and scope of the plans for Dara Sakor have fanned US concerns that the resort could be part of a larger Chinese plan to base military assets in Cambodia, according to an official familiar with the situation.

A naval presence there would further expand China’s strategic footprint into Southeast Asia, consolidating its hold over disputed territory in the South China Sea and waterways that carry trillions of dollars of trade.

It is not the first time that China’s presence in Cambodia has raised alarms with US President Donald Trump’s administration.

US Vice President Mike Pence last year wrote a letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen expressing fears that Cambodia might be planning to host Chinese equipment at another nearby location, the Ream Naval Base, which officials in Phnom Penh have repeatedly denied.

More broadly, the US suspects that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and other strategic infrastructure in places such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar would pave the way for China to set up more military bases overseas after establishing its first one in Djibouti two years ago.

Cambodia, which gets three-quarters of its investment from China, has increasingly been Beijing’s most reliable partner in Southeast Asia.

“If you have a naval base in Cambodia, it means that the Chinese navy has a more favorable operational environment in the waters surrounding Southeast Asia,” said Charles Edel, a former US Department of State official who is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney.

“You have, all of a sudden, mainland Southeast Asia potentially sitting behind a defensive Chinese military perimeter. This is by far the biggest implication and one that would likely have political effects,” Edel said.

Since taking office in 2017, Trump has publicly questioned the value of longstanding US alliances in Asia and elsewhere in the world. That has helped provide an opening for China and Russia to further strengthen strategic ties with friendly countries.

Hun Sen has called reports of a Chinese military base “fake and twisting the truth.”

He wrote back to Pence, saying that his country rejects any foreign military presence as well as any “rivalry that could potentially plunge Cambodia into a proxy war again.”

However, that did little to reassure the US.

US Department of Defense official Joseph Felter last month wrote to Cambodian Minister of Defense Tea Banh asking why Cambodia rejected an offer of US funds to repair facilities at the Ream Naval Base after initially submitting a request in January.

The sudden reversal fueled suspicions that Cambodia would host Chinese military assets at the base, Felter said in a letter.

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