An intense geopolitical and geostrategic debate is unfolding over the Cambodian port of Koh Kong. The port development project has invited international scrutiny over its commercial and financial viability amid fears that Cambodia could soon be in Chinese ‘debt trap’ as demonstrated by port projects in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Further, there is also a strong belief that Koh Kong is a civil-military project and could serve as forward operating base for PLA Navy’s operation in the South China Sea. Earlier this year, PLA Navy ships made a goodwill visit to Sihanoukville autonomous port and Vice Admiral Tea Sokha, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Navy welcomed the visit as symbolism of the growing relationship between the two navies and announced joint maritime exercises.
Fears about Koh Kong came to the fore last year after the US director of national intelligence in a report made reference to Koh Kong port development project and its possible military use by China. This prompted US Vice President Mike Pence to convey in a letter his country’s concern to Prime Minister Hun Sen who vehemently denied the insinuation; instead, he has clarified that the Cambodian constitution has no provision for accommodating foreign military bases on its soil. Further, there were no plans to bring about any amendments to the constitution to facilitate such projects.
Cambodia is a maritime state and engages in international commerce through Sihanoukville Autonomous Port on the Gulf of Siam. It is the only major deep-sea port in the country and has recorded remarkable growth in recent years. It earned a net profit of USD 8.97 million in 2018 up 43 per cent compared to year earlier. The container cargo handling at the port was up 17 per cent i.e. 537,107 TEUs and totaled nearly 5.2 million tons.
The Port of Phnom Penh on the Mekong River is the second container hub in Cambodia and in 2018 it registered USD 7.35 million as net profit up 36 per cent compared to 2017. It received 205,000 TEUs, up 11 per cent year-on-year and the containerized cargo tonnage rose 3.7 per cent to 2.9 million tons. The government has plans to add to container capacity at these ports and new terminals would be developed to make Cambodia’s shipping costs competitive with neighbouring countries.
The third port i.e. Koh Kong is the provincial port and is limited by capacity. The new port project is spread over 45,000 hectares and involves building casinos, golf courses and luxury resorts for entrainment, and the 20 kilometers long coastline would serve as a deep-water port meant for servicing cruise liners that would arrive with tourist. The port is also linked to an airport that would have a 3,400 meters long runway, perhaps longer than the international airport at Phnom Penh.
It is not unusual for countries to develop and build maritime and aviation infrastructure which is used for commercial as also military purposes. Further, it is not unusual to see both commercial vessels and warships berthed in the same port but are generally separated by physical barricades or boundary walls. Likewise, there are several airports across the globe which service civil aviation requirements as also for the militaries. Thus it is fair to tone down exaggerated geostrategic concerns over Koh Kong and its possible military use.
Instead, Cambodia should invest in, and promote cruise tourism and the related marine leisure industry. Cruising is a growth industry and several cruise liners are deploying significant capacity in Southeast Asia. New and large cruise ships are expected to make port calls at new destinations, and Koh Kong could emerge as future Mecca of cruising.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, India.