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Navy rejects US concern over upgrade of Ream base

Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Share:
General Chhum Sucheat, spokesman for the Defence Ministry, shows the US-built facility in Ream Naval Base during the press tour last year. KT/Chor Sokunthea

The Royal Cambodian Navy yesterday brushed aside a concern raised by the United States Department of Defense which alleged that the Kingdom may be hosting China military assets and personnel at Ream Naval Base after Cambodia demolished a US-built facility at the naval base in Preah Sihanouk province.

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The reaction comes after the Pentagon on Friday said it was concerned about reports that the US-funded Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security had been demolished last month. The Pentagon had also asked the government for an explanation.

“We have concerns that razing the facility may be tied to Cambodia government plans for hosting People’s Republic of China (PRC) military assets and personnel at Ream Naval Base,” Reuters quoted the Pentagon as saying.

Rear Admiral Mey Dina, spokesman for the Royal Cambodian Navy’s Naval Ream Base, told Khmer Times yesterday said that demolition of the US-funded building was because the Kingdom planned to build a new military port.

Photo showing the US facility before it was demolished. CSIS/AMTI

“The demolition of the US-aided building was because the building was dilapidated, and it was at the site where the naval base planned to build a large, modern military port,” he said.

“The US allegations against the Cambodian Ministry of Defence that it provided the Ream Naval Base to China to host its military are untrue,” he added.

Rear Adm Dina who is also deputy commenter of the base said the current military port at the naval base which is used to dock warships is “small and short”.

“The Ream Naval Base is preparing new infrastructure to ensure the growth of the defence sector for the navy,” he said. “There must be a large and long port. It must be done.”

“The United States is badmouthing Cambodia because they do not want to see Cambodia develop and some neighbouring countries have done the same,” he added.

Chad Roedemeier, US Embassy spokesperson said via email yesterday that the US embassy is aware of the report of the demolition of its founding facility.

“We have seen credible reports that a US-funded maritime security facility at Cambodia’s Ream Naval base, built in 2012 and further upgraded in recent years to help the country protect its coastal waters, has been at least partially demolished,” he said. “We remain consistent in urging Cambodia to take all measures to protect its sovereignty and not allow any single country to have exclusive use of military facilities within its borders.”

“Facilitating access to Ream for all of Cambodia’s partners, as Prime Minister Hun Sen has stated, with none having an exclusive or permanent presence, would be in line with the country’s constitution and avoid eroding regional stability,” Roedemeier added.

The US think tank’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Friday published images which it said showed Cambodia has demolished a US-built facility at the country’s largest naval base, citing satellite imagery collected on Thursday.

Photo showing the US facility after it was demolished. CSIS/AMTI

“The demolition occurred sometime after September 5 – likely around September 10 – though imagery of sufficient resolution to confirm was not available at that time,” it added.

The think tank said the building demolished was the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security which was officially inaugurated in 2012 and was renovated and built by the US and equipped by Australia.

“The building was one of several US-funded facilities on the base which were reportedly to be relocated after Cambodia struck a secret deal to grant China access to Ream,” it added. “The recent demolition seems to confirm that changes are underway at the naval base and again raises questions about rumoured Chinese access.”

Defence Minister General Tea Banh could not be reached for comment yesterday, but he released a full phone interview on local media yesterday, calling the concern of the US as the behaviour of “trouble makers”.

“The demolition of US-aided buildings took place on Cambodian sovereign territory. We have the right to reorganise. It’s nothing weird at all. It [the base] needs to be developed to be more comprehensive, including the port and dock. Now the water is too shallow to serve,” he said.

Gen Banh said that the new project will cost hundreds of times more than what the US had funded for the building.

“If they have good intentions, we welcome genuine help. Instead, it turns out to be an accusation. It reflects their character,” he added.

The allegation about a Chinese naval base at Ream Naval Base 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.

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 the Kingdom.

Mr Hun Sen in June reaffirmed the government’s rejection of allegations that there is a Chinese naval base within the Ream Naval Base, which had been an issue previously raised by US diplomats.

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,” Mr Hun Sen said. “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 to do so, please come.”

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.

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