US Welcomes Cambodian Assurances on Reported Chinese Naval Base

The United States has welcomed assurances by Cambodia that it will not permit China to construct naval facilities on its territory, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Bangkok on Friday following meetings of ASEAN foreign ministers in the Thai capital.

Cambodia denied reports of an agreement with China allowing the base during a Thursday U.S.-ASEAN ministerial meeting, Pompeo said during an Aug. 2 press conference held with Thai foreign minister Don Pramudwinai.

The United States welcomes Cambodia's strong defense of its national sovereignty, and we encourage other nations in the region to follow Cambodia's lead in protecting it, Pompeo said.

On July 21, a report in The Wall Street Journal cited U.S. and allied officials as saying that Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a deal in the spring granting China access to part of Cambodia's Ream Navy Base on the outskirts of the port city of Sihanoukville and near a large airport a Chinese firm is building.

If confirmed, the deal would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia, allowing it to significantly expand patrols in the South China Sea, where an ongoing standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in disputed waters led to two tense encounters earlier this month.

On July 22, though, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed reports that China had signed a deal allowing the base, saying such an arrangement had never been discussed and would be in violation of Cambodia's constitution.

A diplomatic strategy

Writing on his Facebook page on Aug. 2, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan thanked Pompeo for what he called the U.S. diplomat's fairness in accepting Cambodia's assurances that no port deal with China had been signed.

Analysts meanwhile described Pompeo's comments as a diplomatic strategy to ensure that Cambodia now keeps its word.

Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service on Friday, Cambodian Youth Network co-founder and vice president Sar Mory said he believed that the U.S. has remained suspicious about Cambodian intentions despite the country's previous denials of a deal with China.

So the U.S. welcomes Cambodia's denial [made at ASEAN] now. This is nothing more than a diplomatic gesture meant to pressure Cambodia and hold it to its commitment, Sar Mory said.

Also speaking to RFA, Finland-based political analyst Kim Sok said that Pompeo's remarks were aimed at reminding Cambodia to protect its sovereignty against encroachments by Beijing, adding, Cambodia must now adhere to its promise not to host a Chinese naval base and to respect its own constitution.

Soured relations

Phnom Penh's relations with Washington and other Western capitals have increasingly soured since late 2017, when Hun Sen launched a broad crackdown on the opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that included the banning of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the arrest of its leader for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

Cambodia's government has since touted improved ties with China, which typically offers cash and diplomatic support without the conditions that the U.S. and EU place on support, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.

In a press conference held in response to a July 30 U.S. Embassy statement noting the one-year anniversary of what it called last year's deeply flawed national elections in Cambodia, government spokesman Phay Siphan told U.S. Embassy staff to pack up and leave if they are unhappy with conditions in the country.

His remarks came as the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment of W. Patrick Murphy as the new U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, replacing outgoing Ambassador William Heidt. No word was yet available as to when Murphy will take up his new post in Phnom Penh.

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