The mystery of China’s airport project in Cambodia

The project to build an airport between pristine coastline and other nearby structures raises concerns about China’s underground plans to build a military base in Cambodia.

The runway stretches like a scar through the pristine Cambodian forest.

When completed next year on the deserted coast, Dara Sakor International Airport will boast the longest runway in Cambodia, complete with a tight bend that is preferred by fighter jet pilots. Nearby, workers are clearing trees from a national park, paving the way for ports deep enough to accommodate naval vessels.

The Chinese company that built the runways and ports said the facilities were for civilian use. However, the scale of the 99-year land deal at Dara Sakor – which shields 20% of Cambodia’s coastline – has increased attention, especially when part of the project built so far has been abandoned in the jungle.

According to the New York Times , operations at Dara Sakor and other nearby Chinese projects are raising concerns that Beijing has an underground military plan in this small Southeast Asian nation.

Alarm bells with the US

China’s construction boom on disputed islands in the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean and toward Beijing’s first military base abroad, in the Horn of Africa’s Djibouti nation, set off alarm bells about China’s military ambitions at a time of weakening US presence in the region.

“Why do Chinese people come to the middle of the forest to build runways? This will allow China to pave the way for its air power in the region and change the whole game,” said Sophal Ear, a political scientist, at Occidental College in Los Angeles, speaking to the New York Times .

As China expands its power abroad, it is shrinking a regional security umbrella shaped by the United States decades ago. US military officials said China had reached an exclusive agreement to expand the current Cambodian naval base from the Dara Sakor coast, even if Beijing denied military intent in the country.

“We are concerned that the runways and port facilities at Dara Sakor are being built on a large scale to be used for military purposes, far exceeding current and expected infrastructure needs for operations trade, “said Colonel Dave Eastburn, Pentagon spokesman.

“Any move to invite foreign troops to present will disturb peace and stability in Southeast Asia,” Colonel Eastburn added.

This month, the US Treasury Department accused a senior general involved in Dara Sakor of corruption and imposing sanctions on him.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has denied allowing Chinese troops to build bases in Cambodia. Instead, his government announced that the runway and Dara Sakor port would turn this remote rainforest into a global logistics hub, which would create “opportunities”.

“There will be no Chinese army in Cambodia, absolutely, not to say it’s a fabrication. Perhaps the white people want to hold back Cambodia by stopping us from developing our economy,” Pay Siphan said.

Unusual land deal

In July, armed men arrived in the wooden house of Thim Lim, a fisherman living in Cambodia’s largest national park. They ordered him to leave.

Thim Lim said Land Administration officials announced his home would be demolished next year to make way for a “Chinese-built military port”. Other villagers attending the meeting confirmed this information.

Thim Lim’s land was part of Dara Sakor’s lease agreement more than a decade ago with Union Development Group, a Chinese company that has never operated overseas in addition to acquiring 110,000 acres of Cambodian land.

The deal has been suspected since its inception. Without an extensive bidding process, Union Development was awarded a 99-year lease, three times longer than what the Cambodian land law allows. The company is exempt from payment for a decade.

On December 9, General Kun Kim, former chief of staff, and his family became the target of US Treasury Department sanctions for profiting from relations with a “Chinese state entity.”  While the Chinese company was not listed, local activist groups and residents said it was Union Development.

Presiding over the signing of the Dara Sakor agreement in 2008 is Zhang Cao Le, one of China’s top leaders. The company’s promotional materials called the project “the largest coastal investment plan not only in Southeast Asia but in the world”.

New construction at Dara Sakor includes a 3,000-meter runway and a deep-water port that can accommodate 10,000-ton ships.

Joint venture control is still unclear. For many years, Union Development declared that Dara Sakor was completely private. However, General Chhum Socheat, Cambodia’s Deputy Defense Minister, told the New York Times that the nation’s civil aviation agency is running an airport project, meaning it cannot link with the Chinese military.

However, Sin Chansereyvutha, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Minister, said that “we have no agreement” for Dara Sakor airport.

‘China is heading towards our prosperity’

In July, the Wall Street Journal reported on a secret draft agreement to grant China exclusive access to a part of the Ream Naval Base for 30 years.

Speculation about Ream increased this year as the United States, which responded to Cambodia’s request to revamp US-based boat training and maintenance facilities, was informed that Cambodians no longer wanted help.

In a letter, Joseph Felter, then deputy US Defense Secretary to South and Southeast Asia, warned General Tea Banh, Cambodian Defense Minister, of suspicions that “a change in policy this sudden could point to larger plans for changes at Ream naval base, especially those related to the storage of Chinese military assets. ”

Hun Sen and his subordinates accused the United States of seeking to promote revolution against his government. Two years ago, the Cambodian military suspended joint military exercises with the Americans and began cooperation with the Chinese.

In July, Hun Sen announced spending $ 240 million on Chinese weapons.

“If the US Embassy doesn’t like us, they can wrap up. They are troublemakers and we see it when they despise Cambodia,” said Pay Siphan.

“China is moving towards our prosperity. We are good friends,” he added.

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