The United States’ top intelligence official has said Washington is wary of a possible Chinese military presence in Cambodia.
In its annual report, the office of the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said the return to a de facto one-party state after the last elections could lead to greater Chinese influence.
“Cambodia’s slide toward autocracy, which culminated in the Cambodian People’s Party’s retention of power and complete dominance of the national legislature, opens the way for a constitutional amendment that could lead to a Chinese military presence in the country,” reads the report.
After dissolving the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Cambodia held an election in July in which the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 seats in parliament – more than the two-thirds majority needed to trigger an amendment of the constitution that currently bans foreign military bases in the country.
The issue was first raised by the Washington-based think tank Center for Advanced Defense Studies in April last year, linking the Union Development Group, a large Chinese investor in a seaside resort in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence expressed concern over the report in a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose government denied the allegation.
Hun Sen said in a speech in December after visiting the UDG site that foreign military bases would not be needed in Cambodia, adding that there would be no constitutional amendments to allow a foreign military presence in the country.
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said the ruling party supported Hun Sen’s remarks, saying it reflected wider opinion among party members.
“The stances of the prime minister and the party chief are one. While the CPP is a party of discipline, whatever the party chief stands for we will follow,” Eysan said.
He added that allowing a foreign military base to be built in Cambodia “would impose a lot of impacts on peace and Cambodia’s permanent neutrality.”
“We understand that the global powers are paying close attention to this issue of international ideological rivalry, so we shall be extremely careful on the issue.”
Western democracies condemned the controversial reelection of Hun Sen’s ruling party. Further trade sanctions are also being considered by both the EU and US.
Cambodia has forged close defense ties with China. The two armies are planning to hold their third joint military exercises, known as Dragon Gold, in Cambodia’s Kampot province in March. Three Chinese warships also made a port call earlier this month in Sihanoukville.
Meanwhile, joint training exercises with the US have been put on hold for the past two years amid allegations US officials conspired with the CNRP to overthrow Hun Sen – allegations Washington and the CNRP deny.
The Pentagon’s top South East Asia envoy, Joseph H. Felter, told VOA Khmer during a recent visit to Phnom Penh that the U.S. was seeking to normalize defense ties with Cambodia.