Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

US Military Attaché will inspect Ream Naval Base over concerns of Chinese military presence

Naval officers stand guard near patrol boats at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Picture taken during a media trip organised by the government on July 26, 2019. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Naval officers stand guard near patrol boats at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Picture taken during a media trip organised by the government on July 26, 2019. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The government has decided to allow the US military attaché to inspect Ream Naval Base after a top US official expressed concern about an alleged Chinese military presence in Cambodia. A number of political analysts have welcomed the decision, warning that Cambodia could face negative economic impacts should its relationship with the US get worse.

Ream Naval Base spokesman Rear Admiral Mey Dina confirmed that the Ministry of National Defense would allow the US military attaché to visit Ream Naval base, although he did not reveal the date of the inspection.

“It is not like what they have accused us of, because this is their strategy, they want to destroy us [by damaging Cambodian-Chinese relations],” he said. “The constitution clearly stipulates not to allow any foreign base in Cambodia territory.”

A statement released by the US Embassy in Cambodia following a meeting between visiting US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman and Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday stated that Sherman had expressed serious concerns about what the embassy characterised as a Chinese military presence and ongoing construction and demolition activities at Ream Naval Base along Cambodia’s coast.

National Defense Minister Tea Banh could not be reached for comment. Speaking to local online media outlet Freshnews on June 3, he said that the government was allowing the inspection to clear up allegations that Cambodia was allowing a Chinese military base on its sovereign territory.

“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.”

Royal Navy Commander Admiral Tea Vinh declined to comment.

US embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier did not share further details of the upcoming inspection.

“Deputy Secretary Sherman expressed serious concerns about PRC [People’s Republic of China] military activities at Ream Naval Base, which undermine Cambodian sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodian relations. Routine and frequent visits by all foreign military attachés to Ream Naval Base can contribute to increased transparency”, he said.

Sophal Ear, associate professor at the Occidental College in California, said that he believed the US just wanted the government to think twice before going too far in its relationship with China.

“There is no free lunch, there is no way there are no strings attached,” he said. “We shall see what the US military attaché finds during their visit to Ream Naval Base.

Sophal added that the government had previously invited reporters to visit the base, but that was before the US-constructed buildings were destroyed.

“Phnom Penh [government] smartly invites them when there is nothing to see, and afterwards does all of its work when they cannot see,” he said. “But, US satellites can see everything, so why lie? With the US military attaché, will Phnom Penh again show that nothing is happening? Will it be a masquerade?”

Political analyst Em Sovannara said that the best way forward for the government would be to be honest with the US about receiving Chinese assistance.

“If Cambodia doesn’t respond to what the United States has raised related to Cambodian neutrality and regional security, Cambodia will face negative impacts both in their relations with the US and their economy,” he said.

Sophal said that the government should be careful not to alienate the US by growing too reliant on China, arguing that the nation’s independence and neutrality were at stake.

“If Phnom Penh says there’s nothing to see, but the satellites see something, then the truth is there was something happening that Phnom Penh wanted to hide,” he said. “And then the negative vicious cycle will continue.”

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