Chinese warships dock in Cambodia amid rumours Beijing is building a new naval base there

  • China has pumped billions into Cambodia while seeking high-profile military exchanges, fuelling speculation it is building a naval base off the coast
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 6:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 6:25pm

Three hulking Chinese warships docked in Cambodia on Wednesday for a four-day visit, as Beijing parades its naval prowess alongside its staunch Southeast Asian ally.

China is the largest investor in Cambodia and has pumped billions into the economy while asking few questions about its abysmal rights record.

While doling out cash China has also sought high-profile military exchanges, fuelling speculation that it is building a naval base off the Cambodian coast, claims vehemently denied by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Several joint military exercises have also taken place and in June Beijing promised US$100 million to modernise Cambodia’s armed forces.

The three warships, the longest measuring 180 metres, have stopped at Cambodia’s Sihanoukville port for a visit until January 12, according to Cambodian defence ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat.

“The goal of the visit is to boost ties and military cooperation, especially between the navies from both countries,” he said, dismissing suggestions that the display was about touting “Chinese influence”.

He said a Chinese navy delegate would meet Cambodian military commanders and Defence Minister Tea Banh during the visit.

Rumours that China has been building a base off Cambodia’s southwest coast have been swirling for years but reached new levels after Hun Sen said US President Vice President Mike Pence sent him a letter about it in November.

The strongman leader, who has been in power for more than three decades, said Cambodia would not allow foreign military bases on its soil.

In return for China’s long-standing support Cambodia has proved a reliable ally among the Asean bloc regarding disputes over its activities in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s claims in the waterway have angered the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia who all have competing claims to its islands and potentially resource-rich waters.

Demand from China fuels Cambodia’s ‘womb for rent’ industry

China has also backed Cambodia on sensitive issues, including a controversial election in July held without the opposition.

The mutual support comes as US influence declines. Cambodia accused the US of conspiring with an opposition leader to overthrow the government and suspended military exchanges with the country.

But while developments bankrolled by China may have fanned growth they risk incubating resentment among some Cambodians who fear the country is increasingly in the pocket of the regional superpower.