WASHINGTON – China will be able to place armed forces at a Cambodian naval base under a secret agreement the two nations have reached, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.
The agreement, reached this spring but not made public, gives China exclusive access to part of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, reported the Journal, citing U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter.
Such an arrangement would give China an enhanced ability to assert contested territorial claims and economic interests in the South China Sea, challenging U.S. allies in Southeast Asia. Chinese and Cambodian officials denied such an agreement existed, according to the Journal.
Some details of the final deal were unclear, the Journal reported, but an early draft, seen by U.S. officials, would allow China to use the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after that. China would be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships, according to the draft.
Surrounded by dense jungle and mangroves, the naval installation at Ream covers about 77 hectares (190 acres) and includes two facilities built with U.S. funding and used by the Cambodian Navy, and a single pier where a dozen patrol craft dock.
Citing the early draft of the base accord, the Journal reported that China would build two new piers — one for Chinese use, one for Cambodian, U.S. officials said, adding that further dredging would likely be needed for the base to host larger Chinese Navy ships.
In a statement, the State Department urged Cambodia 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 added.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Defense Department suggested China may be attempting to gain a military foothold in Cambodia in a letter to Cambodia asking why the nation had turned down an offer to repair a naval base.
Last week, Bloomberg News reported that Cambodia’s $3.8 billion China-backed Dara Sakor investment zone, which encompasses 20 percent of the country’s coastline, was also ringing alarm bells among U.S. military planners.
Controlled by a Chinese company with a 99-year lease, it features phased plans for an international airport, a deep-water seaport and industrial park, along with a luxury resort complete with power stations, water treatment plants and medical facilities.
But the size and scope of those plans have also fanned U.S. concerns that the resort could be part of a larger Chinese push to base military assets in Cambodia. 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.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the South China Sea, including the construction of man-made islands — such as those in the Paracels and Spratlys — some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The U.S. military regularly conducts “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) in the area.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also routinely operate.
Neither Japan nor the U.S. have claims in the waters, but both allies have routinely stated their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”