Another pearl in China’s string?

Plans in Cambodia for a massive tourist resort on an out-of-the way island don‘t add up and may serve a different goal.

The Cambodian island of Koh Rong, long a backpacker’s haven, lies just a quick boat ride from Sihanoukville, a city that has come to symbolise the governmental intimacy of Cambodia and China. Omnipresent Chinese-owned casinos, along with frequent reports of criminal behaviour, have turned Sihanoukville into a “sordid gambling mecca”.

A growing wave of anti-Chinese sentiment across Cambodia has not wrested Prime Minister Hun Sen from his embrace of Beijing. His regime has instead further cosied up to China, reportedly granting it military access to a naval base in Sihanoukville, as well as the opportunity to build an airport and deep-sea port at Dara Sakor, in nearby Koh Kong province. While the latter is supposedly a civilian project, China’s “civil-military fusion” frequently erases the line between the country’s military and civilian sectors, expanding its global reach.

It is therefore notable that regime-friendly Cambodian and Chinese investors are pressing along with their plans to build a massive supposed “resort” on Koh Rong, which sits strategically in the Gulf of Thailand, about 100 kilometres from China-wary Vietnam. The specifics of this resort are hard to reconcile with its supposed civilian purpose. And given China’s history of obscuring its military ventures – until opening its first foreign base, in Djibouti, Beijing repeatedly denied having plans for bases abroad – it is worth considering that Koh Rong could become the Chinese military’s next staging point.

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