Chinese armed forces will be allowed 30 years of exclusive access to a Cambodian naval base on the Gulf of Thailand, according to a Wall Street Journal report that quoted anonymous US officials.

The secret agreement, which was reportedly reached in the spring of this year, comes amid heated speculation that China has lobbied to build a dual-use naval base in Cambodia, Beijing’s closest ally in Southeast Asia.

Cambodia’s government has denied the July 21 Wall Street Journal report, as it has all rumors and speculation about a Chinese naval presence on its territory, which would violate sovereignty-related provisions in the country’s constitution.

“This is the worst-ever made up news against Cambodia,” Prime Minister Hun Sen was quoted by the government-mouthpiece Fresh News on July 22. “No such thing could happen because hosting foreign military bases is against the Cambodian constitution,” the leader said.

The Wall Street Journal report said the exclusive deal will allow Chinese troops to use the Ream Naval Base, located in southern Preah Sihanouk province, for up to 30 years, with an automatic renewal every 10 years afterwards.

China currently has only one foreign naval base, in Djibouti. A Chinese naval presence in Southeast Asia would be a strategic game-changer, potentially giving China a new southern flank advantage in its escalating contest for power vis-a-vis the US and its allies in the South China Sea.

Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Facebook

Such an arrangement would cause wider regional ripples, too. Neighboring Thailand, for one, is known to be concerned about the presence of Chinese troops so close to its coastline.

Vietnam, which has been fighting against Chinese expansionism and militarization in the South China Sea for years, would also likely be up in arms, particularly considering its long-time strategic hold over its neighbor.

The contested report comes as the US and China ratchet up their confrontations across Asia, a contest in which Cambodia firmly falls in step with Beijing. In 2017, Phnom Penh cancelled its regular Angkor Sentinel joint-military drills with the US, and now engages in military training drills only with China.

Hun Sen has an increasingly firm grip on his military, meaning any naval deal with China would necessarily have gone through him. His eldest son and likely successor, Hun Manet, was promoted to the second-highest ranking official in the Cambodian military last year, just months after the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) rigged a general election to secure all 125 seats in parliament.

The result raised hackles in the US and European Union about the country’s slide away from democracy and towards a de facto one-party state, similar to China’s Communist Party-dominated political system.

The election result and banning of the main opposition party effectively removed any checks and balances on the country’s strategic relations, including with China.

“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 in coordinating regional developments, and disturb peace and stability in Southeast Asia,” said Emily Zeeberg, spokesperson for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.

“We urge Cambodia’s leadership to honor its constitutional commitment to its people to pursue an independent foreign policy, and to protect Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty for future generations,” she added.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh did not immediately respond to Asia Times’ request for comment on the naval deal report.

In November last year, Asia Times reported that US Vice President Mike Pence would raise concerns about China building a dual-use naval base in Koh Kong province, located west of Preah Sihanouk, when he arrived in Southeast Asia for a regional summit the following weekend.

Dara Sakor, a US$3.8 billion China-backed real estate investment which encompasses roughly 20% of Cambodia’s coastline and gives a 99-year land lease to the Chinese developer, could genuinely be just a luxury tourist resort, as China has long claimed.

But its airport and deep-water port could also be used for military purposes, strategic analysts and diplomats said.

Days after Asia Times’ expose, Hun Sen confirmed that Pence had written a letter to him without revealing its contents. However, the Cambodian government described the Asia Times article as “fake news”- as they notably have with the Wall Street Journal report – claiming it was based on “dangerous rumors” aimed at undermining Cambodia’s reputation.

Over the last eight months, however, reports have surfaced that the airport at Dara Sakor was unusually long and had other features that suggested military use. The speculation has also been highlighted in recent official US documents.

A revised Indo-Pacific Strategy report released by the US Department of Defense in early June states that Washington remains “concerned about reports that China is seeking to establish bases or a military presence on its [Cambodian] coast, a development that would challenge regional security and signal a clear shift in Cambodia’s foreign policy orientation.”

The annual report, issued by the office of the director of US national intelligence Dan Coats, stressed that “Cambodia’s slide toward autocracy…opens the way for a constitutional amendment that could lead to a Chinese military presence in the country.”

Naval vessels docked at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

In July, attention turned to China’s interests in the Ream Naval Base after the US Defense Department asked the Cambodian government to explain why its offer to help restore the base’s training facility and boat depot had been denied.

The rejection “has been seen throughout the US government and is fueling speculation that this sudden change of policy could indicate larger plans for changes at Ream Naval Base, particularly ones that involve hosting Chinese military assets,” states a letter sent by Joseph Felter, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, to Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh in late June.

Some observers suggest that China initially wanted to develop its own naval facilities within Koh Kong’s Dara Sakor project, but that the media publicity and US criticism caused Beijing to pivot towards a secret deal to use Preah Sihanouk’s naval base instead.

It is possible, of course, that the Chinese military could still use the airport and deep-water port at Dara Sakor for logistical purposes, as the distance between Dara Sakor and Ream Naval Base is less than an hour’s drive.