The White House was put on high alert when the Cambodian government abruptly refused to allow the US to repair a training facility at Ream Naval Base just months after US defence officials visited the complex. Operated by the Royal Cambodian Navy, the base has been the site of annual US-Cambodia training since 2010. Pentagon officials believe the sudden attitude change may be a sign that they have plans to host China instead – a nation Cambodia has been growing ever closer to amid Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea.
US defence official Joseph Felter sent a letter to the Cambodian defence minister demanding answers about his nation’s behaviour.
It read: “The notification letter of 6 June 2019 has been seen throughout the US government and is fuelling speculation that this sudden change of policy could indicate larger plans for changes at Ream Naval Base, particularly ones that involve hosting Chinese military assets.
“I would greatly appreciate a more detailed explanation for why these repairs — which your staff requested — are no longer necessary as well as your future plans for these US-funded facilities.”
In response, the defence minister was guarded, saying: “At Ream, perhaps, there will be some changes in the future.”
The US has been on high alert in the South China Sea in recent years due to China’s expansion in the region.
Beijing – which claims entitlement to 80 percent of the South China Sea – has been garnering the support of nearby nations using both diplomacy and intimidation.
Experts are also warning Beijing will get involved in a standoff with Australia over regional dominance.
This would be detrimental to American interests in the region – the White House has been keen to restrict China’s rapidly growing global influence.
Despite relations between Washington and Phnom Penh strengthening considerably in recent years, China appears to have won the diplomatic battle.
As one of Beijing’s closest allies, Cambodia receives billions of dollars worth of Chinese aid – and perhaps more importantly, political support for Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Ream Naval base is Cambodia’s largest military complex – and symbolically sits near the port city of Sihanoukville, the centre of a Chinese-led casino boom and a Chinese-run Special Economic Zone.
It is a sign of China’s success that, if reports are true, they have managed to successfully set up base in Cambodia, despite the nation’s constitution explicitly rejecting it.
Anti-China backlash is traditionally rife in Cambodia following Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge government and its subsequent massacres – but this move signals the change in attitude.
The flashpoint in Cambodia is just the latest in a series of disputes involving Beijing in the South China Sea.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte recently yielded to China over their demand to have access to their Exclusive Economic Zone, despite heavy domestic pressure.
As with Cambodia, the Philippines seem to have pivoted towards Beijing instead of their more traditional allies in Washington.
US officials fear that, with heavy Chinese investment in the area, this could be a growing trend.