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Debunking the Chinese naval base in Cambodia narrative

Joseph Trevithick / War Zone No Comments Share:
The circled section of the Dara Sakor development which is being rehashed again and again. NZ Herald

The Claim that a new Cambodian airfield is actually a Chinese base is dubious at best has been widely circulated from News.com.au, a division of News Corp Australia, was published on Feb. 8, 2020, and was subsequently parroted and shared all around the national security and defense online community.

The story claims that an airfield that is under construction near Cambodia’s Dara Sakor Seashore Resort is actually a Chinese Air Base that will give China’s military greater reach throughout a critical and increasingly tense region.

This all sounds fairly ominous and intriguing, but there is one problem, high-resolution satellite imagery exclusively obtained by The War Zone does not support such a bold claim.

While it is possible that Chinese military aircraft will use the base when it is completed, we see no obvious signs of that at present. The News.com.au story stated in part:

“Many of the aircraft turning bays are too small for large commercial airliners. Instead, they’re just right for fighter jets. And exactly why it needs to be 3400m [~11,155 feet] long is uncertain.”

“That’s far larger than even the largest civilian airliners require to land or take off. There is no significant nearby population or industrial centre. And its enormous scale goes far beyond the needs of the languishing Koh Kong resort nearby.”

This passage is littered with laughably reaching and flat-out inaccurate assumptions. A roughly 10,000-foot is not uncommon at airports that will be able to accommodate airliners, especially in an area of the world that experiences high temperatures year-round.

The claim about the turning bays is also wrong. The distance from the runway edge to the turnout area’s outer edge is roughly 330 feet. This is ample room for any airliner or transport to make an about-face. For comparison, the turnout area at St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport, a famous Caribbean airstrip that hosts the largest of airliners and cargo aircraft, is roughly 300 feet wide, including the runway.

The airfield’s turnout areas are very large and can accommodate any aircraft.

The under-construction airfield’s centralized apron could presumably be used to accommodate a number of aircraft of various sizes, from helicopters, to regular regional turboprop and jet traffic, to large international charter aircraft.

There are no hangar bays or other notable aircraft support improvements erected at this time that would point to a specific use for the airfield, either. The apron itself is quite small by Chinese military airfield standards.

Also, there aren’t any heavy security improvements or other features that point toward the base having some sort of primary military application. There is a road direct to it from the nearby luxury resort.

Construction workers at the site where the new airport is being built. KT/Mai Vireak

In addition, a military airbase is not just built for fighters. A heavy logistics train would have to support those aircraft, including large transports and airliners, so the idea that a modern airfield would be just tailored for tactical fast jets and would not be able to accept larger aircraft is absurd and questions the writer’s knowledge on the subject and/or their sourcing.

With all this in mind, yes, it is possible the Chinese have something to do with this new airfield. China is certainly looking to expand its military presence beyond its own borders and Cambodia already has a unique relationship with China in this regard.

The resort and the large dock area nearby are part of a larger Chinese investment that is tied to the Belt And Road initiative, a soft-power economic effort to increase China’s general influence abroad.

At the same time, it could just as easily be an airfield being built to support local tourism and other operations. Being able to bring airline, charter, and private air traffic directly to the luxury destination would be a huge advantage to seeing it prosper.

In addition, any airfield can be potentially used for military purposes in a crisis, but if China makes it a practice of turning its foreign business investments into military capabilities, that would be pretty counter-productive to realizing future prospects.

The focus on fighter aircraft is also odd. The base presents even more utility for surveillance aircraft flights, including those by long-endurance unmanned aircraft, than short-range fighters.

So, there you have it. While it is still very possible that China could be the end-user of this airfield and Beijing has some peculiar investments in the area, the original report was reckless with its assumptions and many who read and shared the article were far too accepting and unskeptical of those conclusions. Time will tell if the airport becomes a Chinese military outpost, but for now, it remains very much an unsolved mystery.

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