Cambodia’s government has again denied that it will allow China to build a naval base on its coast, dismissing a recent editorial about the likelihood of such a project as misinformation aimed at damaging the country’s international image.

Last week, United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney senior fellow Charles Edel wrote an editorial acknowledging the possibility that China could construct a base in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province based on satellite images showing a Chinese firm rushing to complete a runway capable of supporting military aircraft.

Published by Washington-based defense website War on the Rocks, Edel’s editorial noted that while Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has dismissed reports of a possible Chinese base in the country, his independence seems increasingly doubtful, given the substantial political and economic support he has received from Beijing since winning an election last year widely viewed as unfree and unfair.

The logic of Chinese expansion suggests that sooner or later, Beijing will need such a military outpost in Southeast Asia, and Hun Sen’s Cambodia presents especially fertile geographic and political soil, wrote Edel, a former associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College.

Edel listed several situations in which Beijing had invested in a country’s critical infrastructure, acquired a significant piece of waterfront territory through a Chinese company, and made assertions that the activity was purely commercial or humanitarian, only to use the site to further its strategic aims.

The pattern of Chinese actions indicates the real potential for a similar process to play out in Cambodia, Edel says.

This is especially true given the growing convergence between the way that Hun Sen defines Cambodian interests and Chinese foreign policy. Hun Sen has helped expand Beijing’s local and regional ambitions in exchange for political support and diplomatic backing from Beijing, closer military cooperation, and more development aid, concessional loans, and investment.

Edel warned that a Chinese base in Cambodia would rapidly shift the strategic landscape of Southeast Asia to the detriment of both the United States and its regional allies and partners, and urged concerned states to proactively shape the strategic environment by calling attention to what has already occurred, encouraging greater engagement by regional actors and local powers, and approaching the region from a broader perspective.

Edel’s editorial followed a Nov. 15, 2018 report by Hong Kong’s Asia Timesonline news portal, which cited unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Beijing is building a 45,000 hectare (111,200-acre) naval base in Koh Kong�a report that was later cited by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in a letter to Hun Sen.

Hun Sen has denied that his government would amend the constitution to allow China to build a naval base in the country as fake news and part of a foreign campaign to mislead the public and the international community with the intention of destroying the country’s independence and neutrality.

If such a naval base were built on the Gulf of Thailand, it would allow China to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims much of, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.

Government response

Over the weekend, Cambodian Ministry of National Defense spokesman Chhum Socheat took to Facebook to dismiss Edel’s editorial as misinformation, noting that Hun Sen had repeatedly denied the reports.

Such an aggressive act of labeling is mal-intended, politically motivated, aimed at distorting Cambodia’s international image, and an attempt to disrupt the country’s development, foreign direct investment, and booming tourism industry, he said.

Additionally, the spokesman said, Cambodian citizens are delighted that Chinese investors continue to trust in the country’s political stability.

In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to ban the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

The dissolution of the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media, which paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.

While relations with the West have increasingly soured since the ballot, which was widely seen as a rollback of democratic freedoms, Cambodia’s government has in recent months touted improved ties with China, which typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.

Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment�particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville�but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.

‘Gang’ video

As concerns over China’s influence on Cambodia grow, Cheap Sotheary, Sihanoukville provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, called on local officials to take action against a group of Chinese nationals living in Sihanoukville city who recently posted a video vowing to cause trouble for authorities.

In the video, which sparked anger among Cambodians on Sunday after it was posted to social media, a man claiming to be from China’s Chongqing city stands in front of around 20 shirtless comrades sporting tattoos and warns the camera that they have the ability to destabilize the region.

In a statement issued after the video was posted, China’s embassy in Cambodia said Chinese authorities would cooperate with Cambodian police to investigate what it suggested was a gang matter.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Cheap Sotheary warned that authorities must act to prevent Chinese nationals from abusing the law in Cambodia, adding that the video was causing local residents and investors to fear for their safety.

If things remain as they are and we permit them to do anything they want, they will further disrespect our country and our loose law enforcement, she said.

Attempts to reach National Police General Commissariat Chhay Kimkhoeun went unanswered during business hours on Monday, but Sihanoukville provincial governor Yun Min told RFA over the weekend that all nationalities have good and bad people.

There are always both good and bad people coming to our country, so there is nothing we can do besides strengthening our law enforcement, he said.

Criminal activity

Last week, Cambodia’s government sought to downplay public criticism of Chinese investment in the wake of a recently released police report which found that Chinese citizens were the top perpetrators of crime committed by foreign nationals in the country in the first quarter of 2019.

The report came amid a string of high-profile arrests of Chinese nationals, including 163 people netted during a March police raid on a Siem Reap-based illegal online gambling ring, two people who shot a driver to death during a brazen daylight carjacking in Sihanoukville on Monday, and 28 people nabbed a day later in a bust of an online extortion scam operating out of Phnom Penh.

In September last year, outgoing Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Xiong Bo acknowledged the climbing rates of crime among Chinese living in Cambodia�including drug and sex trafficking and online or telephone scams�and thanked Cambodian authorities for helping to crack down, according to a Sept. 28 report in the Khmer Times.

A month later, a taskforce established by the Ministry of Interior to assist police in Sihanoukville province reported that Chinese criminal organizations had followed Chinese investment into the country and set up local operations.

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