Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh on Monday dismissed suspicions that his government had reneged on accepting an offer from the U.S. to upgrade buildings at a naval base in Preah Sihanouk province because it plans to host Chinese military assets at the site.
In a letter written to Tea Banh last month, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph Felter said that Cambodia’s National Committee for Maritime Security Tactical Headquarters had requested that Washington refurbish a training facility and boat depot, built by the U.S. in 2017, when he toured the Ream Navy Base in January, according to media reports.
While funds to upgrade the facilities were approved in April, Cambodia’s Defense Ministry informed the Pentagon two months later that they were “no longer necessary,” Felter said, prompting concerns that the ministry might be planning for a Chinese presence at the base in the province, which has seen an influx of Chinese investment in recent years.
“The notification letter of 6 June 2019 has been sent throughout the U.S. government and is fueling speculation that this sudden change of policy could indicate larger plans for changes at Ream Naval Base, particularly ones that involve hosting Chinese military assets,” the letter said, according to a report by Reuters news agency.
Felter demanded “a more detailed explanation” for why the Ministry of Defense had backtracked on the request and what Cambodia’s plans are for the U.S.-funded facilities.
On Monday, Tea Banh told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia had “never rejected” any offer from the U.S. to repair the buildings at Ream Navy Base and that his ministry welcomes any “honest” assistance.
He claimed that the facilities in question “needed to be relocated” to allow for further development in the region, without providing details about a new location, and dismissed speculation that Cambodia was planning to host Chinese military assets at the base as “fake news,” saying the government would only allow China to develop the site for “tourism” under existing concession agreements.
“I have no further comment because we already clearly notified [our U.S. counterparts],” he said, adding that the notification had “nothing to do with a rejection at all.”
“We remain appreciative and welcoming of any assistance, but the facilities in need of repair are no longer in operation, as we will have to relocate them … to a new location. Hence, we remain welcome to any assistance, if [the U.S.] are willing. This has nothing to do with any kind of denial.”
Tea Banh said that a new location for facilities was necessary to “meet with our maritime security demands” in order to support “significantly more and better development.”
Chinese naval base
He also reiterated a denial of a Nov. 15, 2018 report by Hong Kong’s Asia Times online news portal, which cited unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Beijing is building a 45,000 hectare (111,200-acre) naval base on the coast in Koh Kong province—a report that was later cited by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in a letter to Hun Sen.
“The Koh Kong base is another issue and completely different—like heaven and earth—from the development by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) [in the Ream region],” he said.
“[The Chinese] are investing in tourism and already received government concessions for such development. The media interpreted and reported it incorrectly. They just wrote things at will based on what they really want the situation to be!”
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.”
If such a naval base were built on the Gulf of Thailand, it would allow China to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims much of, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.
In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to ban the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The dissolution of the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media, which paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
While relations with the West have increasingly soured since the ballot, which was widely seen as a rollback of democratic freedoms, Cambodia’s government has in recent months touted improved ties with China, which typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.
Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
‘Adding injury to insult’
In an email to RFA on Monday, Sophal Ear, associate professor of World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said that amid Cambodia’s increasing pivot towards Beijing, “the use of any U.S.-funded facility at Ream for the benefit of China's military would add injury to insult.”
He said that if Cambodia does plan to host Chinese military assets at the base—the surrounding waters of which are only deep enough to allow the docking of smaller patrol boats—it would require a significant amount of dredging, but noted that Hun Sen’s government is capable of doing so, given the significant amount of sand it has exported to Singapore in recent years.
“All this could be done under the cover of Cambodian activities which are in fact underwritten by China,” Sophal Ear said.
“Phnom Penh can deny all it wants, but this is not the sort of thing that can be hidden when satellite images, signal intelligence, and human intelligence tell a different story.”
Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), noted that allowing Chinese assets to station at the Ream base would potentially provide Beijing with military access to the Gulf of Thailand and the southern portion of the South China Sea.
"Projecting power at such a distance from China has proven difficult for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), so adding a military facility near Ream would make sense from Beijing’s perspective," he said, adding that such a move could place Cambodia "in the middle of a serious geopolitical dispute and create concerns within ASEAN."
"Felter’s letter only asks the question, it does not appear to accuse Cambodia of actually going ahead with the Chinese plans. Based on what I know, it would make sense for American officials to want a better understanding of why Cambodia asked for and then retracted requests for assistance," Cooper said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.