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US calls for more transparency after new Ream satellite photos released

A naval officer walks near patrol boats at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Picture taken during a media trip organized by the government on July 26, 2019. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A naval officer walks near patrol boats at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Picture taken during a media trip organized by the government on July 26, 2019. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The US embassy on Wednesday criticized the Cambodian government saying it had not been transparent about China’s role in the Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, after new satellite images emerged showing continued construction.

On Tuesday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published updated satellite imagery showing that in August and September several new buildings had gone up and a new road cleared as “China-backed construction has continued to transform the northern half of Ream Naval Base.” Last year, Cambodian military officials confirmed they had demolished US-funded buildings at the base, saying it was part of a larger development plan. The Cambodian government has long said that China is indeed helping with construction at the base, but has denied that the nation has any military involvement. 

“We are aware of consistent, credible reporting that significant construction by the People’s Republic of China continues at Ream Naval Base,” said US embassy spokesperson, Chad Roedemeier.

Roedemeier said the Cambodian government “has not been fully transparent about the intent, nature, and scope of this project or the role of the PRC military, which raises concerns about intended use of the naval facility.”

Citing anonymous US sources, the Wall Street Journal and other publications reported in 2019 that there was a secret agreement between Chinese and Cambodian officials to allow Chinese military access to the base in exchange for infrastructure support.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan denied charges that the base was for the Chinese military, saying Cambodia as a sovereign nation had the right to build anything it saw fit for its interests.

“We are not involved with forces [China navy] and we do not allow any countries to install its military base,” he said.

“The rising up [by the US] is just provoking an issue that isn’t true,” Siphan said.

He said that Cambodia welcomed all countries who wished to dock at Ream Naval Base.

Vice admiral Ouk Seyha, commander of Ream, said the US has long been repeating baseless claims. “It is the same, the same issue,” he said.

National Defense Minister Tea Banh could not be reached for comment, but he told Freshnews on June 3 that China was helping the government build a base for Cambodia’s own use.

“Cambodia has just received [assistance] from China as an ironclad friend in the construction of a larger and more modern Ream port,” he told Freshnews. “After the construction, Cambodia is the user of this modern port, without handing it over to China as alleged by the United States.”

After a visit to Cambodia in June, US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman said that in a meeting with Hun Sen, she expressed serious concerns about what the embassy characterized as a Chinese military presence and ongoing construction and demolition activities at Ream Naval Base along Cambodia’s coast.

The Cambodian government then offered for the US military attache to visit Ream, but the visit ended in controversy after the Americans said the Cambodians failed to give them sufficient access.

Political analyst Meas Nee said that Cambodia needs to counter such criticisms with more transparency.

“It’s important that Cambodia can maintain a balance between powerful countries but if we have just responded [to criticisms] and the full situation isn’t reflected in our response, it is difficult for powerful countries to believe us,” he said.

“We are worried that accusation will keep being repeated and if something happens it will pull Cambodia into a real geopolitical [battle] which is dangerous for our country,” Nee said.

Seng Sary, a political analyst, echoed those statements saying that Cambodia needs to be more open about what the constructions are at Ream and what China’s involvement precisely is.

“I think that the wound of the relations between Cambodia and the US needs to have a suitable chance to heal,” he said.“

This wound will become a severe crisis if Cambodia is caught in the middle of the superpower countries, the US and China.”

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