This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Cambodia has demolished U.S.-funded facilities at a naval base as part of plans to replace them in larger port facility elsewhere, the country’s defense minister said in a weekend interview, rejecting Washington’s concerns about the plan and possible Chinese involvement as meddling it its sovereignty.
Ream Naval Base in the southwestern coastal city of Sihanoukville has been a point of friction between Phnom Penh and Washington since a report in The Wall Street Journal last year cited U.S. and allied officials as confirming a secret deal to allow the Chinese to use part of the base for 30 years.
Prime Minister Hun Sen vehemently denied the deal at the time. A naval base at Ream on the Gulf of Thailand would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and allow it to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea. Beijing claims much of the waterway, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Saturday after a Washington think tank released satellite images showing the demolition, Cambodian Defense Minister General Tea Banh said “nothing is out of the ordinary.”
“Cambodia has a development plan for Ream Naval Base. Due to the development plan we moved the existing structures to the new location. We want to build it better and safer to accommodate the needs of maritime security headquarters,” he said by telephone.
“We are developing Ream Naval Base to make it larger. Now it is small and the water is shallow,” he told RFA, describing the new construction as costing “several hundred times” the “older buildings” of the U.S project.
On Friday the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a report showing that Cambodia had demolished the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security at Ream Naval Base.
The demolition of the building — which was renovated and built by the U.S., equipped by Australia and inaugurated in 2012 – “occurred sometime after September 5—likely around September 10—though imagery of sufficient resolution to confirm was not available at that time,” said CSIS.
“The recent demolition seems to confirm that changes are underway at the naval base and again raises questions about rumored Chinese access,” the think tank said in an analysis accompanying the satellite images, gathered on Oct. 1.
“All they (the U.S.) did was a small repair and provided some equipment,” Tea Banh told RFA.
“Now they are making issues — showing the nature of a powerful country,” he said. “If they want to halt something, they always make allegations.”
“We destroyed the U.S buildings, buildings situated in Cambodian sovereign territory,” added the minister.
The CSIS report noted that Cambodia’s Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction announced plans in February to develop Ream Bay into a $16 billion resort project and had started dredging in what was apparently port infrastructure preparation.
“But with current facilities at Ream Naval Base only able to host small patrol ships, any large port development nearby bears watching,” the report said.
The possibility that China could establish a military foothold in Cambodia has long worried Washington. Vice President Mike Pence in 2018 wrote a letter to Hun Sen expressing fears that Cambodia might be planning to host Chinese military equipment at the base.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense posted a statement on its website Tuesday saying Tea Banh reiterated that reports Cambodia will allow a Chinese military presence on its territory are unfounded.
Tea Banh noted that development at Ream Navy Base had been studied over the last 10 years and upon completion would “welcome any ship.”
“Tea Banh stressed that Cambodia’s constitution won’t allow any foreign military base on Cambodian territory,” the statement said.
“Related to the U.S. concerns over Ream Navy Base, Tea Banh stressed that it will be solely reserved for Cambodian usage, not for foreign militaries.”
Hun Sen has denied that his government would amend the constitution to allow China to build a naval base in the country as “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.”