Cambodia’s government on Friday denied reports that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) plans to amend the constitution to allow China to build a naval base in the country, amid growing influence from Beijing in the Southeast Asian nation.

On Jan. 29, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats submitted a Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that warned of Cambodia’s slide toward autocracy after its Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, paving the way for the CPP to steamroll a general election in July last year.

Such a slide, which the assessment said culminated in the CPP’s retention of power and complete dominance of the parliament after it won all 125 seats, opens the way for a constitutional amendment that could lead to a Chinese military presence in the country.

The assessment comes amid speculation that Beijing is building a 45,000 hectare (111,200-acre) naval base in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, based on a Nov. 15 report by Hong Kong’s Asia Times online news portal, which cited unnamed diplomatic sources.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen later dismissed the report, saying such a move would violate the constitution, while Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense called it fake news and part of a foreign campaign to mislead the public and the international community with the intention of destroying the country’s independence and neutrality.

If such a naval base were built on the Gulf of Thailand, it would allow China to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims much of, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.

On Thursday, Ministry of Defense spokesman Chhum Socheat rejected the U.S. intelligence assessment in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service, saying it had no merit.

But political analyst Kim Sok told RFA that the assessment has solid foundation, adding that he believes Hun Sen is not only willing to amend the constitution to allow a Chinese military presence in Cambodia, but to eliminate the system of constitutional monarchy to provide him total control of the country.

On Friday, the Council of Ministers’ Quick Reaction Unit issued a statement denouncing the RFA report, calling it fake news and alleging that it was aimed at twisting words, provoking chaos, and destroying peace and stability, as well as the development of the country.

The statement also denied that Hun Sen’s government wants to amend the constitution to end the country’s monarchy, noting that the prime minister had pledged to the late King Norodom Sihanouk protect it.

CIA invitation

The same day, Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense extended an invitation to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to come to Cambodia and investigate for itself whether a Chinese military base is being built there.

The Ministry of Defense welcomes the U.S. CIA to seek the truth on any suspicions about foreign military bases and a plan to amend the constitution [to allow for a foreign military base], the ministry said in a statement.

But if they can’t find any evidence, we would like the U.S. to immediately stop this exaggeration, incitement, labeling and interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs, the statement said, adding that Cambodia doesn’t need to amend its constitution because it is enjoying peace.

In response to the invitation, chief of public affairs and spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, Arend Zwartjes, told RFA that Washington will continue to monitor reports about China’s interest in establishing a military facility in Cambodia.

We welcome the Prime Minister’s statements confirming that Cambodia’s constitution explicitly prohibits foreign military bases on Cambodian territory, Zwartjes said in an emailed statement.

We hope that the Cambodian government provides more transparency about the investment and development taking place on Cambodia’s coastline, and that Cambodia’s sovereignty is protected for future generations.

Zwartjes said that the U.S. welcomes contributions by China to regional development, as long as they adhere to high standards, and cautioned against countries taking on huge loans from construction and infrastructure projects, only to find themselves saddled with debt that they cannot repay.

They are then forced to renegotiate unfavorable terms that hinder their future development, and undermine their sovereignty, he said.

Chinese investment can be beneficial, but these deals need scrutiny, transparency, and close supervision to make sure the benefits go to the country, not the dealmakers.

Western influence waning

After the CPP’s election victory, Beijing offered its full support of Hun Sen’s government, and Cambodia has increasingly backed China in disputes with the ASEAN nations over its actions in the sea.

Meanwhile, Western influence in Cambodia is on the decline amid criticism of Hun Sen and the CPP over rollbacks on democracy in the lead up to and aftermath of the ballot.

The U.S. has since announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and the European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.

Hun Sen has repeatedly stressed that his country does not need foreign governments to recognize the legitimacy of Cambodia’s elections, saying acceptance by Cambodians is sufficient.

He has also said that he will continue to welcome aid from China, which is currently Cambodia’s largest international aid provider and typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.

Trade volume between Cambodia and China was valued at U.S. $5.8 billion in 2017, up 22 percent from U.S. $4.76 billion dollars a year earlier, while China is currently Cambodia’s largest investor, and has poured U.S. $12.6 billion into the Southeast Asian nation from 1994 to 2017.

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