WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and State Department have deepening concerns over continuing Chinese expansion through economic and military means in the Indian and Pacific oceans, facing the reality that U.S. threats to Beijing to halt its actions are toothless.
New reports over the weekend said China has finalized a deal with Cambodia to share a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand — giving Beijing easy access to the shipping lanes in a critical section of the Indian Ocean.
That base would be near a large airport now being constructed by a Chinese company, ostensibly for civilian purposes.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on Monday. Earlier this month, the Pentagon publicly speculated on China’s attempts to grasp a military foothold in Cambodia.
The Pentagon had offered to repair the same naval base but was rebuffed.
Those reports came after the State Department issued a statement Sunday that said it is concerned by reports of China’s interference with oil and gas activities in the South China Sea, including Vietnam’s longstanding exploration and production activities.
“China’s reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts in the SCS (South China Sea), along with other efforts to assert its unlawful SCS maritime claims, including the use of maritime militia to intimidate, coerce, and threaten other nations, undermine the peace and security of the region,“ the State Department statement said.
“China should cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity,” the statement said.
Earlier this year, the State Department said the China is using “coercive means” to prevent other Asian nations from accessing more than $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves.
China has broken its promise not to militarize islands and man-made outcroppings in the South China Sea, many of which are claimed by multiple nations. The U.S. and other nations say China is attempting to control the vital waterway.
Establishing a naval base in Cambodia, a nation with close ties with China, would give Beijing a strong naval presence on the western approaches to the South China Sea and compliment a base it will have in Sri Lanka.
China has proposed building a canal through Thailand, allowing it to bypass the Malacca Strait, strengthen its prowess in the Indian Ocean, and link together disparate military assets, Pentagon officials have said.
China opened its first overseas base in Djibouti, the Horn’s of Africa’s capital, in 2017.
Cambodia has been one of the largest recipients of Chinese largess under Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.
On Monday, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen called the report on the deal with China, first made by the The Wall Street Journal, as “fake news” and “the worst-ever made up news against Cambodia,” according to The South China Morning Post.
China has previously denied it has any interest in the Ream naval base.