The secret agreement for the Chinese naval outpost in Cambodia increases the fears of the United States of Beijing's ambitions

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SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia-China has signed a secret agreement that allows its armed forces to use a Cambodian naval base near here, while Beijing is working to increase its ability to project military power worldwide, according to the United States and officials allies who are familiar with the issue.

The pact, signed this spring but not disclosed by either party, gives China exclusive rights to part of a Cambodian naval installation in the Gulf of Thailand, not far from a large airport now built by a Chinese company.

The details of the final deal were not clear, the officials said, but a preliminary project, seen by US officials, would allow China to use the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years later. China would be able to send military personnel, store weapons and dock warships, according to the draft.

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Military operations from the naval base, from the airport, or from both, would dramatically increase Beijing's ability to enforce territorial and economic claims interests in the South China Sea, to threaten American allies in Southeast Asia and extend its influence on the strategically important Strait of Malacca.

Chinese and Cambodian officials have denied that there are plans for a Chinese military base in the country. "Nothing is happening this way," said Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Cambodian government. He called it "false news".

Naval outpost

The Chinese military will have exclusive use of part of Ream's Cambodia naval base, US officials say.

Ground recently canceled,

apparently for construction

Structures funded by the United States

be transferred

Dara Sakor

International airport

Ground recently canceled,

apparently for construction

Structures funded by the United States

be transferred

Dara Sakor

International airport

Ground recently canceled,

apparently for construction

Structures funded by the United States

be transferred

Dara Sakor

International airport

Dara Sakor

International airport

Structures funded by the United States

be transferred

Ground recently canceled,

apparently for

construction

US and allied officials, however, said an agreement was made that, stopping below a large-scale Chinese base, it would give Beijing the first dedicated naval plant in Southeast Asia and a second outpost in what the Pentagon sees as a Chinese search for a global network of military and dual-use sites.

Washington is "concerned that any initiative by the Cambodian government to invite a foreign military presence in Cambodia" may disturb regional peace and stability, said Emily Zeeberg, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh.

Surrounded by a dense jungle and mangroves, and dominated by a Buddhist temple, the naval installation in question, in Ream, covers about 190 hectares and includes two structures built with US funds and used by the Cambodian navy, and a single pier where a dozen patrol craft basin.

According to the initial draft of the basic agreement, China would build two new piers: one for Chinese use, one for Cambodians, US officials said. US officials said further dredgers would probably be needed for the base to accommodate larger Chinese military ships.

The draft also allows Chinese personnel to carry Cambodian weapons and passports, and requires Cambodians to obtain Chinese permission to enter the 62-acre Chinese section of Ream, US officials said.

Sihanoukville has attracted large numbers of Chinese tourists and millions of dollars of investment, mostly in casinos and seaside hotels.

US officials are debating whether Washington could convince Phnom Penh to reverse its decision on Ream. Some US officials and analysts believe the US has handled too many sticks in its relationship with Cambodia, frequently criticizing the government's human rights record and not offering sufficient carrots.

A senior Pentagon official said the United States wanted Cambodia to be a "preferred security partner," but other officials said Phnom Penh had turned to Beijing. There has been no response to requests for comments from the White House.

US and Allied counterparts are also pressuring Cambodia not to allow the Chinese armed forces to use the large new airport being built at Dara Sakor, about 40 miles northwest of Ream, by a private Chinese company with a lease of 99 years on a sparsely populated stretch of coasts in Cambodia.

Recent satellite imagery shows that work has progressed rapidly in the last year. The site now features a two mile long track, large enough for Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s, and for long-range bombers and Chinese military transport.

The images, according to the United States and the allied officers, also show what appear to be the preparations for the turn of the track necessary for rapid take-offs and landings by military aircraft, in particular fighters. The company that builds the airport says it is purely commercial.

Warplanes flying from Dara Sakor would be able to hit targets in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and elsewhere.

China opened its first foreign military outpost, in the East African nation of Djibouti, in 2017, to facilitate operations around the Indian Ocean and Africa. Since 2014, China has also built seven artificial fortified islands – three with airstrips – in the South China Sea.

A Cambodian outpost would further strengthen China's grip on a country whose authoritarian government is backed by Chinese loans, investments and diplomatic influence, as Beijing increasingly challenges Washington for economic and military influence throughout the developing world .

Dara Sakor International Airport is located in a national park in the sparsely populated province of Koh Kong and will be the largest in Cambodia.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for decades, denied that a plan was planned for a Chinese military base in Cambodia in November, after US Vice President Mike Pence wrote to him expressing concern about the issue.

The Chinese defense minister denied in June that Beijing was establishing a military presence in Cambodia. The Chinese Ministry of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

Until just before China opened its outpost in Djibouti, which it calls a "naval logistic support", Beijing has repeatedly denied having plans for foreign bases.

Combining the Cambodian structures with the Chinese military outposts in the South China Sea, "you basically have a triangular perimeter boxing across the Southeast Asian continent," said Charles Edel, a former adviser to the US secretary of state who is now an analyst in the States US. Study Center of the States of Sydney.

A Chinese presence in both structures would also "complicate" the ability of the United States to come to aid in Taiwan if Beijing decides to attack the island, an American official said, as some US forces would arrive across the Straits of Malacca or external reaches of the South China Sea.

Ream was involved in a major power competition before, drawing attention from both the United States and the Soviets in the Cold War.

A model of the Dara Sakor project shows hotels, luxury homes and at least one container port, as well as the airport.

The United States bombed the base at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 after the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge forces took power in Cambodia and seized an American container ship. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, the Soviet navy visited Ream repeatedly and helped repair and improve the structures there, deepening its waters.

Washington has sought to rebuild its ties with Cambodia over the past decade by resuming aid in 2007, carrying out joint military exercises and financing Ream's facilities. Tensions rebounded as Hun Sen strengthened his grip on power.

Meanwhile, China has made rapid progress, bringing millions of tourists and billions of dollars in investments and loans, largely as part of Beijing's Belt and Road global infrastructure plan, and has concentrated around the port of Sihanoukville, about 10 miles. from Ream.

US officials say they first learned of negotiations between China and Cambodia over Ream about a year ago, urging Mr. Pence's letter.

Their suspicions grew at the start of this year when Cambodia's Ministry of Defense first requested, and therefore refused, US funds to renew Ream's facilities, according to the letters between the two governments seen in the Journal.

Recent satellite images show that an area within the base of the ream has recently been cleaned up in apparent preparation for construction work. Also a bridge at the entrance is being repaired.

Meanwhile, a state-run Chinese construction company is working at Dara Sakor airport, which should be inaugurated next year and will be Cambodia's largest despite being in a province with a population of 200,000 .

The Chinese company behind the new airport, the Union Group, says it is part of a $ 3.8 billion plan to develop 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) of land – including about 20% of the coast of Cambodia – which he rented in 2008.

The Dara Sakor resort has failed to attract many visitors since the opening, and one of its main buildings, seen here, is being renovated.

The company showroom in Phnom Penh shows plans to build five-star tourist resorts, golf courses, marinas, two container ports, high-tech industrial areas and a "new city" of luxury residences.

So far, however, the single casino and golf course completed in 2014 have failed to attract many tourists. On a recent visit, seven of the approximately 100 hotel rooms were occupied, staff said, and little progress was made on other promised facilities.

Representatives of the trade union group say they underestimated the transport difficulties and believe that the airport will bring 300,000 Chinese visitors every year. Western officials are skeptical.

The Cambodian track "seems much longer than necessary for any normal commercial or air purpose, and certainly longer than necessary for any tourist development therein," an Australian intelligence official said.

"We have some concerns that China is using the same workbook used in the South China Sea, creating facts on the ground until it is too late for anyone to object."

Write to Jeremy Page a [email protected], Gordon Lubold a [email protected] and Rob Taylor a [email protected]

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