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It has long been rumored that the government of Cambodia would offer China a military outpost, most likely a port facility, in its territory. The speculation took concrete form this week following a Wall Street Journal report that the two governments had concluded a secret agreement that would give Beijing access to a navy base in the south of Cambodia. Despite heated denials from Phnom Penh, there are good reasons to believe the reports are accurate. Such an agreement would mark a critical moment in Southeast Asian security and potentially transform the regional security outlook.

China has long sought access to port facilities in South and Southeast Asia. Strategists have referred to a “string of pearls,” a network of ports and logistics facilities that would allow China to project power throughout those regions — ostensibly to protect Chinese interests, in particular trade that transits those areas, but also to threaten those of potential adversaries. One study identified 42 ports in 34 countries where Chinese firms have been involved in construction and which could serve China’s strategic interests. Key nodes include the ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Sihanoukville in Cambodia.

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