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Mike Pompeo debunks China naval base in Cambodia theory

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing in Washington D.C., the United States, March 15, 2018. Xinhua

“Cambodia refuted reports that it is allowing a Chinese military installation to be built on its territory. 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,” said United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the Asean-US Ministerial Meeting last week in Bangkok.

He went on to stress the US is not asking Indo-Pacific nations to choose between countries. He said, “Our engagement in this region has not been and will never be a zero-sum game. Our interest simply converges with yours for mutual benefits.”

The US also supported the Asean Indo-Pacific Outlook and endorsed the core principles set forth by Asean such as sovereignty, the rule of law, inclusiveness, transparency, and openness. To build trust, the US should match its words with concrete actions on the ground.

The statement on the alleged military base in Cambodia demonstrated that the US finally, seems to understand Cambodia’s position on the issue after Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn clarified the position at the ASEAN-US foreign ministerial meeting.

This is quite a positive message from the US Secretary of State.

The accusations against Cambodia by the United States regarding the alleged Chinese naval bases first in Koh Kong and then in Ream of Sihanoukville, are not based on hard facts but on assumptions and comparative analysis of similar infrastructures in the South China Sea and different parts of the world.

Such baseless assumptions are counterproductive to the bilateral relationship and the US’s engagement in the region. If the US still looks at Southeast Asia from the strategic lens of containing China, the US needs to understand the totality of the foreign policy formation of Southeast Asian countries.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has also said Secretary Pompeo’s statement carries more weight and clarity that makes moot, the letter by Vice President Mike Pence which ignited the naval base theory.

The allegations started with a report entitled: Harbored Ambitions. How China’s Port Investments are Strategically Reshaping the Indo Pacific, by Devin Thorne and Ben Spevack, and published by C4ADS.

A quick search on C4ADS reveals the obvious – it is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting on global conflict and transnational security issues and is headed by a retired army officer. On page 61 of the report titled Harbored Ambitions, the very first para states: Geopolitically, the Pilot Zone is among many investments that induce Cambodian support for China regionally, particularly within Asean.

The entire paragraph on page 61 of the said report is based on assumptions, theoretical assertions and no hard facts  to support the assumptions. How can policy makers and experts or scholars come to conclusion on such matters in the absence of all these? Is it strategically motivated to militarize the Mekong region by using Cambodia as a pretext?

The report is full of mischief and its ubiquitous and is portrayed as facts when it is based on documents which are available on the public domain and which does not state the obvious  – there is no secret agreement for any naval base in Cambodia, for China, for the United States or for anybody for that matter.

Since when did a theory constitute fact if there are no supporting documents? There are no satellite images to lend credence to the report. Oh wait. There are no satellite images simply because there are no such bases being constructed. A large airfield does not mean a military base is taking shape.

Whichever way one looks and analysis, the main deficiency here is the inability of the Cambodian Government to forcefully dismiss these theoretical notions which has enabled the pervasive allegations to fester, breed and manifest into more allegations and accusations.

Some Cambodian analysts also draw their own assumptions-without hard evidences- that the US might have its own strategic calculation and interest in accusing Cambodia to be the future military base of China in order to get more military accesses to Cambodia’s neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand. The US has been eyeing Cam Ranh port in Vietnam for its military expansion in the Indo-Pacific.

The Mekong region risks being militarized by major powers if the Mekong countries and Asean do not share common vision and be able to forge a united front against foreign intervention by major powers. The Mekong region is potentially a theater of China-US power competition and rivalry.

The conflicts amongst various US agencies is also apparent and makes diplomacy with the US more difficult. One example of this is the statement by newly appointed Secretary of Defense,  Mark Esper who said that the US wanted to quickly deploy new intermediate range missiles in Asia to counter the rise of China is worrisome and lends credence to the heated rivalry.

Cambodia stands tall and firm that the Kingdom strictly adheres to the foreign policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. Learning from the past experiences, Cambodia stays vigilant to great power politics and rivalries, while strengthening its national autonomy and sovereignty.

For Cambodia, nothing is more valuable than independence, self-determination, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. These are the core principles and values of foreign policy. The US, at the least,  should understand Cambodia’s foreign policy principles.

The national interests of Cambodia are crystal clear, which are the maintenance of peace and stability, economic development and poverty reduction, and the promotion of national role and prestige on the international stage. To realize these interests, Cambodia has no choice but to stay neutral and be friend to all and enemy to none.

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