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Allegation of naval presence ‘base-less’: PM

Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Share:
Naval personnel patrol the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province. KT/ Chor Sokunthea

Amid rising concerns over allegations about a Chinese naval base in Preah Sihanouk province, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday reiterated the government welcomes any country to conduct joint land or sea military drills with the Kingdom, but insists that it would not allow any foreign military base on its territory.

Speaking during a meeting with civil servants, a road construction technical team at Preah Sihanouk province on Monday, Mr Hun Sen reaffirmed the government’s rejection of allegations that there is a Chinese naval base within the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province, which had been an issue previously raised by US diplomats.

During the meeting, he also called for overseas funding to build a pier and relocate the building of the National Committee for Maritime Security.

“We need financial support from China, but if you want to support us, we will welcome your assistance as well,” he said.

He said Cambodia welcomes holding joint military exercise with the US, France, Canada, India, UK, Japan, Australia and other countries.

“The Ream Naval Base welcomes ships from any country to dock and we also welcome any country to conduct a joint military exercise with us, not only with China,” he said, “If the US is willing do so, Please come,” Mr Hun Sen said.

Cambodia suspended military drills with the US since 2017 as well as a counter-terrorism exercises with Australia, but keeps holding the annual “Golden Dragon” military exercise with China during which heavy weapons, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and attack helicopters are used.

Mr Hun Sen said Cambodia welcomes only joint military exercises that are related to counter-terrorism and humanitarian rescue efforts during disasters, but not battle drills.

“They just accuse Cambodia of allowing the military seaport to be used by China exclusively…if so, it is against the Kingdom’s constitution,” he said.

The allegation was first made by The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, which published a report saying that a secret deal had been struck between the two nations for China to use the base, an allegation vehemently denied by both countries.

“The pact – signed this spring but not disclosed by either side – gives China the exclusive right to part of a Cambodian naval installation on the Gulf of Thailand, not far from a large airport now being constructed by a Chinese company,” the Journal said in its report.

Mr Hun Sen on Monday also urged an unnamed foreign ambassador to stop sending messages to his officials over the alleged secret deal with China.

The ambassador had written to Defence Minister General Tea Banh and a Deputy Prime Minister.

“He claimed that Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen does not know about this issue because [defence minister] General Tea Banh had allowed them to do it,” Mr Hun Sen said.

Mr Hun Sen said if the deal was done by Gen Banh, the minister would have informed him about the issue. He said Cambodia has no principle to allow any foreigners to use the country to set up naval bases.

“I would like to reaffirm that Cambodia is an independent and territorially sovereign country and does not align itself with one or another or allow a foreign military presence in its territory. It also does not station its military in foreign soils, unless under the flag of the United Nations,” he added.

The US embassy spokesperson Emily Zeeberg has previously said the possible hosting of Chinese military facilities, given the high level of Chinese economic and political influence in Cambodia, is a real concern.

She said any steps that weaken Cambodia’s independence or open the door to a foreign military presence in Cambodia would be of serious concern to the United States.

US vice president Mike Pence had also sent a letter to Mr Hun Sen, raising concerns over news that there was a Chinese naval base in Kingdom.

A military base in Ream. Ream Naval Base

“We urge the Cambodian leadership to maintain its constitutional commitment to have an independent foreign policy and actively protect Cambodia’s independence for future generations.” Ms Zeeberg said at that time.

Rear Admiral Mey Dina, spokesman for the Ream Naval Base said yesterday that the allegation over Chinese naval base was baseless.

“Those foreign diplomats keep raising it again and again, but actually, there is no Chinese military or naval base at Ream naval base,” he said. “We understand that they are not happy with the Kingdom’s development and prosperity. They are claiming and spreading exaggerated information.”

Rear Adm Dina said there have been claims that a new warehouse of the National Committee for Maritime Security, which has just started construction, is a Chinese “military facility.”

According to the Ministry of Defence, the old warehouse was built by the US in 2007. Rear Adm Dina said he did not know whether the new warehouse construction was funded by any country.

“If parties want to fund us, we absolutely welcome them, but we are not happy over the wrong accusation.” he added.

In a bid to clear the air over the alleged secret agreement to have China use the Ream Naval Base, the Defence Ministry in August last year took dozens of journalists to tour the site.

Some 70 local and foreign journalists were given a tour of the base, where there were no signs of Chinese nationals or warships.

Paul Chambers, Special Assistant for International Affairs at the College of ASEAN Community Studies, in Thailand’s Naresuan University said via an email that a “Cold War” between China and the United States is increasingly growing in the world and one of the hot spots is Southeast Asia.

“Thus, for Washington, a Chinese naval base in Cambodia is very worrisome.” he said.

When asked if the US would hold a military drill with Cambodia, Mr Chambers said: “That depends upon the extent to which Cambodia and the United States both want such a drill and whether each can offer enough reassurance that they have no ill will in mind for the other.”

Political analyst Em Sovannara said yesterday that the alleged Chinese military base in the Kingdom is sensitive for the US and some Asean members, including Vietnam which has a dispute with China over the South China Sea.

He said to clear the speculation from foreign diplomats or foreign journalists, the government should invite them to visit the area.

“They are concerned that if there is any Chinese military base here, it would be easy for the Chinese military to intervene in the South China Sea,” Mr Sovannara said.

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