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.
Illustration: Mountain People
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.
“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,” Emily Zeeberg, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh, said by e-mail.
Cambodia’s government insists that it has nothing to hide.
Tea Banh, who attended the opening ceremony for Dara Sakor in March, this month told Radio Free Asia that Cambodia no longer needed the US funds, because the facilities designated for repair would be moved to an unspecified new location.
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan likened US worries about a Chinese military base to its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, saying that Cambodia has no intention to host Chinese naval assets at Dara Sakor or anywhere else.
“Dara Sakor is civilian — there is no base at all,” Phay Siphan said. “It could be converted, yes, but you could convert anything.”
Covering 360k2 of the heavily forested Botum Sakor National Park, Dara Sakor was conceived as a tourism hub in 2008 when the concession was awarded to Tianjin Union Development Group based in the northern Chinese port city. The company, which attracted senior Chinese Communist Party leaders to endorse the project, wants to create what amounts to a new Cambodian metropolis.
Brochures on its Web site show ambitious plans: an airport that receives half of Cambodia’s visitors, docking facilities for full-size cruise ships and high-speed rail connections to the capital, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap — home to the famed Angkor temples and Cambodia’s top tourist draw.
Chinese tourists last year made up about one-third of the country’s 6.2 million visitors, which contributed about 13 percent of GDP.
Tianjin Union did not officially provide anyone who could answer questions on the record after repeated telephone calls and e-mails over several weeks.
A woman who only gave her last name as Zhong said by telephone: “We noticed that the Cambodian government has responded to this issue, and dismissed the speculation of building a military base there. We have nothing further to add.”
A visit to Dara Sakor this month showed nothing out of the ordinary.
One employee at the resort said that a new airport was necessary because the closest one was about a three-and-a-half-hour drive on newly paved roads from Sihanoukville, a beach town where a Chinese investment boom has stirred local resentment over the past few years.
At a checkpoint in front of the construction site for the new airport, which is set to become operational next year, just one sleepy guard waved through vehicles to a vast expanse of dirt.
Visitors could drive all around the area, including on the newly completed tarmac. Construction had not yet begun on a terminal or other buildings, and only a handful of people milled about.
A guard working another checkpoint on a 67km dirt road connecting the resort with a deep-water port initially demanded a US$5 bribe before relenting. The bumpy stretch showed few signs of life other than streams of elephant dung.
Inside the resort, which opened in 2014, tourists from Cambodia and China ate, swam and lounged about with their families.
The staff invited reporters to explore the spacious grounds, which were accessible through an entrance featuring tall roman pillars beneath a large pediment. No place appeared off limits.
The resort had a well-manicured golf course and a white sand beach that curved beneath a tree-lined hill, but it was already showing some wear and tear: The constructed ponds were filled with scum and weeds grew through cracked tiles along the walkways.
“There is no Chinese army here, not that I can see,” a young driver at the resort who went by Bob said, laughing at the idea that the resort would one day play host to the Chinese military.
At a security conference last month in Singapore, Chinese Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) flatly denied that the country is building a naval base in Cambodia.
“There is no such thing as for China to establish its military presence in Cambodia,” he said in response to a question.
However, military strategists see a few red flags. The new airport would have a capacity of 10 million passengers a year, double the capacity in Phnom Penh and more than 40 times the number of visitors who arrived in 2017 at the airport in Sihanoukville, which has loads of hotels and casinos. Koh Kong last year received only about 150,000 international visitors.
“Unless you have the kind of tourism you need already there, then you don’t build an airport — especially when there is already an airport nearby,” said retired Indian Army colonel Vinayak Bhat, a former satellite imagery analyst.
The deep-water port also does not make sense for tourism, he said, adding: “It can become a naval base overnight.”
Indian military planners were also worried about China’s interest in financing the Kra Canal through Thailand, which would allow it to bypass the Malacca Strait and project power into the Indian Ocean, Bhat said.
While Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered an examination of feasibility proposals for the canal in November last year, little has been done since then. Older studies suggest that it could take just nine years to build if given the green light.
Either way, suspicions are likely to persist, in part due to the lack of transparency in Cambodia.
Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy called for an international investigation into China’s activities, saying that they could possibly breach the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements that ended a protracted civil war.
A foreign military base in Cambodia would be “potentially destabilizing for the region,” Rainsy said. “This risk clearly needs to be taken seriously and independently assessed.”
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