Base instinct: how Chinese visit to Cambodia reignited rumour of navy port plan


Fresh from celebrating four decades since the downfall of the former Khmer Rouge rulers, Cambodia welcomed several Chinese warships. Just days after last week’s anniversary, the vessels docked in the resort city of Sihanoukville, reviving concerns about the implications of close military ties between the two countries and the possibility China is planning a naval base in the kingdom.

Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen swatted away similar rumours about Beijing’s intentions last November, after receiving a letter from US Vice-President Mike Pence.

Rear Admiral Xu Haihua (right), commander of the 30th fleet of Chinese navy escort, shakes hands with people welcoming the Chinese naval fleet at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, Cambodia, on January 9, 2019. Photo: Xinhua
“The constitution of Cambodia bans the presence of foreign troops or military bases in its territory … whether naval forces, infantry forces or air forces,” the premier said, bluntly dismissing Washington’s concerns.

But after the navy visit, analysts said there may be some substance to the idea.

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Paul Chambers, a regional analyst at Thailand’s Naresuan University, insisted: “Reliable, senior Cambodian officials have told me that the Hun Sen regime is moving toward the tacit approval of a naval base on a 99-year land concession in Koh Kong,” Chambers said in an email, referring to the coastal province where a Chinese developer is building a US$3.8 billion tourism project on 45,000 hectares of land.