This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh on Tuesday confirmed that a second U.S.-funded building at Ream Naval Base in the southwestern coastal city of Sihanoukville has been torn down and defended the move, despite growing tensions with Washington amid reports of Chinese-backed development at the site.
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.
On Monday, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington published satellite images it said showed that a maintenance facility was demolished between late October and earlier this month.
AMTI said the building “was deconstructed in stages,” with its roof tiles “carefully removed before the roof and walls were taken down.”
The building is the second U.S.-funded facility at the site to be dismantled, after Cambodia demolished the Tactical Command Headquarters (TCH) of the National Committee for Maritime Security (NCMS) at Ream in early September.
On Tuesday, as he did in October when confirming the demolition of the TCH, Tea Banh defended Cambodia’s right to make changes at the site and dismissed U.S. concerns over possible Chinese involvement as meddling in Cambodia’s sovereignty.
“It was just a warehouse to store boats,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “We demolished it to develop a new area—there’s nothing wrong with that.”
The current site is too small, he said, and the military is relocating the base to a new location on Koh Preap island within Ream Naval Base.
“We are building everything new—bigger and better than before,” the defense minister said.
Tea Banh said Phnom Penh didn’t inform Washington about the demolition “because the [buildings] are under Cambodian sovereignty,” he said, adding that the facilities only amount to “small aid.”
In October, Nikkei Asia published a report saying preparations are underway at Ream Naval Base for a China-backed expansion, citing Vann Bunlieng, deputy commander and chief of the Royal Cambodian Navy general staff. The report said plans include dredging work to deepen waters surrounding the base, which can currently only accommodate smaller vessels.
At the time, Tea Banh refused to disclose which country was funding the expansion project, asking, “Is it not our right [to choose]?”
Washington remained skeptical of Cambodia’s motives Tuesday, with U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier expressing disappointment in an emailed statement that Cambodian military authorities chose to demolish “another maritime security facility funded by the United States, without notification or explanation.”
“The Prime Minister has said Cambodia would not allow an exclusive or permanent foreign military presence anywhere in the country and that ships from around the world will be welcome to call at Ream,” Roedemeier said, adding that the U.S. hopes “the government continues to abide by that position.”
AMTI director Gregory Poling appeared unconvinced that Cambodia intends to do so, based on the imagery his group analyzed.
“The demolition of the second U.S.-funded and built facility, which is right next door to the facility that was knocked down in September, is just going to fuel the speculation that something is going on at Ream,” he told RFA.
“We have had a steady drip, drip, drip of evidence, of leaks, of changing stories from Cambodian authorities regarding the speculation about Chinese access. And increasingly it looks like that is what is happening.”
Poling dismissed Cambodia’s attempts to spin changes at the base, noting that U.S. officials had only last year been asked to help upgrade the facility that was knocked down in October.
“Everything seems to be pointing in one direction: that China is getting some kind of access—whether that’s permanent or rotational or preferential, we don’t know—but something at Ream, and that therefore American support, American presence, is no longer needed nor is it wanted,” he said.
Pivot to China
Hun Sen’s deepening repression of the opposition and civil society, seen as an effort to extend his 35-year rule over Cambodia, has strained ties with the U.S. and with European nations, the main aid donors and trade partners who backed the reconstruction of the country since the 1990s. Phnom Penh has tilted politically and economically toward China, which asks few questions about the crackdown.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, two months after leader Kem Sokha’s arrest, for its role in the opposition leader’s alleged plot to stage a coup with U.S. assistance.
The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in California, told RFA that the destruction of the second U.S.-funded facility in as many months is “yet another example of Phnom Penh being hellbent on eradicating all trace of U.S. donations at Ream Naval Base.”
“This is the golden rule playing out: whoever has the gold makes the rules, and China is the one with the gold and therefore making the rules,” he said in an emailed statement, which include “[making] the buildings and instructing Phnom Penh on what must be destroyed.”
Sophal Ear said Hun Sen’s government is “only interested in staying in power … and in lining its own pockets,” and that Beijing is more than willing to help.
But he noted that the lesson to be learned is that foreign donors should be wary of providing aid to a government that might then later destroy it, and instead called for sanctions to “show to Phnom Penh that destroying democracy, human rights, and freedom, are not the right direction for Cambodia.”