Cambodia is in a uniquely challenging position compared to its peers in the Southeast Asian region. Although not a claimant state in the South China Sea disputes, the country has been drawn into the maritime conflicts and has been criticized for its lack of willingness to condemn China over the latter’s expansive sovereign claims and growing presence in the disputed waterway. Meanwhile, as one of the downstream Mekong countries, Cambodia is subject to the consequences of water politics involving fellow Mekong countries and regional powers such as China and the United States.
The South China Sea and Mekong issues are thus two of the key regional challenges confronting Cambodia. The country is also facing great geopolitical challenges resulting from the U.S.-China competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. In July 2019, Cambodia was placed in the spotlight when The Wall Street Journal reported that Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a secret deal allowing China military access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province.
Although concrete evidence is lacking, analysts and pundits have continued to speculate about the possibility of a Chinese military presence on Cambodian soil. The speculation is understandable considering Cambodia’s steadily growing alignment with China and Beijing’s increasing influence and presence in Phnom Penh.