PHNOM PENH, August 12 -- While Cambodia welcomes an ongoing influx of Chinese tourists, investment and development, the world at large increasingly suspects that China is launching a military buildup in the country for stronger Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
Dara Sakor, a new China-backed coastal resort in Koh Kong province, located some 400 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh by road, covers almost 20 percent of the country's coastline. Having obtained a 99-year land lease from the Cambodian government, the Chinese developer was allowed to develop on 36,000 hectares of land in the province, raising questions about China's intentions in Cambodia. Washington has repeatedly shared its concerns about the matter with Cambodia's leadership. In November last year, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence wrote a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen raising the issue of China's presence and the land concession in Koh Kong awarded to Union Group. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Felter as well as U.S. Congressman Steve Chabot also expressed concerns about the Chinese presence in Cambodia. But both the Cambodian government and the Chinese company denied the allegations and claim there is no hidden agenda behind the massive project. Wang Chao, vice president of Union Group, said the $3.8 billion project is part of the "One Belt and One Road Initiative" of Chinese President Xi Jinping and purely for commercial and tourism purposes. He said Union Group found the area to be ideal as it is close to a national park, standing on a coastline with a beautiful beach and suitable for a deep-water seaport.
Kyodo News reporters recently traveled to the site, where they witnessed extensive construction under way, with an 18-hole golf course, a hotel, and one casino already completed. Dara Sakor International Airport, which has a 3-kilometer tarmac, is set to open in October next year. Once completed, it will be the largest airport in Cambodia, capable of handling Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s. According to Cambodia's tourism statistics, 2 million out of 6.2 million foreign tourists who visited Cambodia in 2018 were Chinese. Tourism Minister Thong Khon said Cambodia expects to receive 3 million Chinese tourists next year, 5 million a year by 2025 and 8 million a year by 2030.
The United States fears that China's presence will ultimately increase its capacity to enforce territorial claims and economic interests in the South China Sea, where it is engaged in a territorial dispute. The dispute involves China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. Vietnam, Cambodia's neighbor in the east, has been strongly critical of China's behavior in pressing its claims in the South China Sea. For about a year now, Chinese have been seen moving further to several parts of Cambodia including those along the country's border with Vietnam to pursue business opportunities, particularly where gambling is allowed. Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the Wall Street Journal reported last month that China has signed a secret agreement with Cambodia that would allow Beijing to use Ream naval base, strategically located in southern coastal Cambodia. According to the Journal, an early draft of the deal, 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. Ream naval base is located not far from the new airport, images of which show what appear to be preparations for runway turns needed for quick takeoffs and landings by military aircraft, the Journal said. Wang of Union Group denied allegations that the Dara Sakor project is connected with Beijing establishing a military presence. "The project is purely for commercial and tourism. I can assure you that it's not at all built for any military purpose. It's an open place and we welcome those who want to visit the site for clarification," he said. Phay Siphan, chief spokesman of the Cambodian government, also denied the allegation. "Frankly, it is impossible for China to have such a military presence in Cambodia as it goes against the ASEAN principle and the country's Constitution," he said. "It's not smart for Cambodia to allow China to do so; thus Cambodia can't make it happen," he added.