A new runway being constructed in a Cambodian jungle has added to fears that China is preparing to base troops around the southeast Asian country.
The New York Times reported that the runway, being constructed by a Chinese firm at Dara Sakor International Airport near Cambodia’s southwestern coast, has a tight turning bay: a style often used by fighter jet pilots.
At 10,500 feet long it will be the longest runway in the country, and will be located near ports the US fears may also be used by Beijing’s troops.
Cambodia borders the Gulf of Thailand, which neighbours the South China Sea, where China has expanded its military presence in disputed territory over the past decade.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have competing and sometimes overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The US, which sends naval ships on ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols there, has become concerned by Beijing arming islets and reefs around the sea to bolster its sovereignty claims. Smaller Asian nations have accused Beijing of using bullying tactics in the region.
The Cambodian government has denied that Chinese troops will be based in Dara Sakor: a £2.9 billion resort and investment zone being being built by Union Development Group, a Chinese company, on 360 square kilometres of Cambodian land.
Despite denials this year it was revealed that Cambodia’s government, led by prime minister Hun Sen, had secretly signed a deal with China to give Beijing exclusive rights to the use of a Cambodian naval institution near Dara Sakor.
The move was in line with Cambodia’s diplomatic pivot towards China and away from the US and EU over the past decade, as Mr Hun forges closer ties with a powerful ally with equally scant regard for human rights and citizens’ freedoms.
Military observers have warned that Beijing using Cambodian sites as de facto military outposts may be a benefit of China pouring money into the smaller, poorer Asian nation.
The deal is also believed to give Beijing exclusive access to part of a Cambodian naval facility on the Gulf of Thailand.
Between 2013 and 2017 China invested £4.1 billion in Cambodia, with cities such as Sihanoukville transformed into casino hubs by Chinese firms and tourists.
China denies that it has expansionist ambitions, but has built military outposts and placed troops around the resource-rich South China Sea, which has important trade routes. China opened its first official foreign military outpost in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, in 2017.
Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn, spokesman for the Pentagon, told The New York Times: “We are concerned that the runway and port facilities at Dara Sakor are being constructed on a scale that would be useful for military purposes and which greatly exceed current and projected infrastructure needs for commercial activity.
“Any steps by the Cambodian government to invite a foreign military presence would disturb peace and stability in Southeast Asia.”