Cambodia’s government on Thursday said it will lead local reporters on a tour of the Ream Navy Base in the coastal city of Sihanoukville to dispel reports that it signed an agreement allowing China to host military assets at the site, in violation of the country’s constitution.
“We want to prove our transparency and show we are honest that there is no Chinese naval base,” government spokesman Phay Siphan told reporters in Phnom Penh, adding that no military attaches from foreign embassies will be permitted to join the tour, which will be led by representatives from Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense.
He also urged local news outlets to refrain from disseminating “fake news” about a secret deal to allow the Chinese to use part of the base, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal, which cited U.S. and allied officials as sources.
“We are relying on our local reporters’ ears and eyes to prove the truth,” he said.
In its July 21 report, the Journal said that under the terms of the deal, signed in the spring, the Chinese would be permitted to use the base for 30 years—with automatic renewals every 10 years after that—and to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.
Ream Navy Base is located near a large airport a Chinese firm is building in the region.
If confirmed, the deal granting use of the Ream Navy Base 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 most of that sea, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has dismissed reports of the deal, saying earlier this week that “no such thing [has] happened, since a foreign military base will be in full contradiction to Cambodia’s constitution,” and calling for an end to the use of “distorted news about China’s military presence in Cambodia against us.”
The government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit also issued a statement, saying that Hun Sen “categorically rejects the fake news spread by The Wall Street Journal,” which the prime minister considers “ill-intentioned against Cambodia.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, at a regular news briefing in Beijing on Monday, repeated Cambodia’s denial of the deal, and said Phnom Penh and Beijing cooperate transparently “in various areas,” without elaborating.
The Journal’s report follows a bid earlier this month by Minister of Defense Tea Banh to downplay suspicions that Cambodia planned to host Chinese military assets at the base, despite having backed out of an request for Washington to refurbish a training center and boat depot built there by the U.S., telling RFA’s Khmer Service the facilities “needed to be relocated” to allow for further development in the region.
Tea Banh at the time 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 of concern to Hun Sen.
Pivot to China
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 in the aftermath of the ballot, which was widely seen as a rollback of democratic freedoms, Cambodia’s government has since 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.
On Thursday, political analyst Kim Sok told RFA that Hun Sen had directed the Ministry of Defense to lead a tour to the Ream Navy Base as part of a bid to “undermine reports” about the deal and said that most journalists will not have the expertise to determine whether China is laying the groundwork for deploying assets to the facility.
“Local reporters who will be invited to see the Ream Navy Base are not trained to evaluate military sites, and work on the site may not have begun yet,” he said.
Kim Sok said that if the government wants to be open about its plans for the facility, it should allow a variety of stakeholders to join the tour.
“If the government wants to be transparent, it should invite [reporters from international media outlets like] the BBC and CNN, as well as experts from foreign embassies,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.