A Cambodian Navy sailor salutes on a Chinese naval patrol boat during a handover ceremony at a Cambodian naval base at Ream in Sihanouk Ville province, southwest of Phnom Penh, November 7, 2007. China is giving Cambodia nine naval patrol boats to safeguard oil installations in the Gulf of Thailand, another sign of Beijing's deepening ties with the Southeast Asian nation. REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA) - GM1DWNTMAVAA
A Cambodian navy sailor salutes a Chinese vessel at the Ream naval base. A formal Chinese military presence would violate Cambodia's constitution and Asean protocols © Reuters

Cambodian leader Hun Sen has dismissed as “fake news” a report that his country and China have reached a secret understanding allowing Beijing a military presence in the kingdom — a move that would rattle its neighbours and mark a significant projection of Chinese power into south-east Asia.

The Cambodian prime minister’s denial on Monday came after the Wall Street Journal reported that the two countries had signed an agreement allowing China’s armed forces to use a navy base at Ream, near the city of Sihanoukville, for 30 years, with renewals every 10 years after that.

“Why would Cambodia need to have a Chinese military presence on our land?” Hun Sen said in an interview with the pro-government Fresh News website. “We haven’t had any discussion with Chinese leaders, much less signed any agreement.”

According to the WSJ, the understanding on the port, which is near a large Chinese-owned resort project under construction, was signed this spring but not disclosed by either side. A western diplomat in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Financial Times that the report was true.

Under Hun Sen, who has ruled since 1985, Cambodia has seen billions of dollars of Chinese investment in Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects, as well as private investment in businesses such as casinos, which have proliferated in Sihanoukville over the past two years.

A formal Chinese military presence would violate protocols in ASEAN, the regional grouping of south-east Asian nations to which Cambodia belongs, as well as the country’s constitution, which declares that Cambodia is an “independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned state”.

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US officials had been sounding the alarm over a possible Chinese military foothold in Cambodia in recent months. In November Hun Sen said he had received a letter from Mike Pence, US vice-president, “raising concerns over the possible presence of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia in the future”, while denying that there were any such plans.

More recently, Joseph Felter, US deputy assistant secretary of defence for south and south-east Asia, wrote to Tea Banh, the Cambodian defence minister, after Hun Sen’s government rejected a US offer to repair the naval base at Ream. In the letter, seen by the Financial Times, Mr Felter asked whether this indicated “larger plans for changes . . . particularly ones that involve hosting Chinese military assets”.

The base is near Dara Sakor, a resort project on land leased by Cambodia for 99 years to Union Development Group, a Chinese company with links to China’s military. The project, under construction on a long swathe of coastline near the Thai border, includes an international airport with a runway longer than the one in Phnom Penh, raising concerns that it could be put to military use.

UDG has denied the project is a Chinese base.

Emily Zeeberg, a spokeswoman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh, said on Monday that any steps by the country to “invite a foreign military presence in Cambodia” would threaten the coherence of ASEAN in co-ordinating regional developments.

“We urge Cambodia’s leadership to honour its constitutional commitment to its people to pursue an independent foreign policy, and to protect Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty for future generations,” Ms Zeeberg said.

Additional reporting by Sun Narin in Phnom Penh and James Kynge in Hong Kong

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