PHNOM PENH (Cambodia) -- Chinese and Cambodian officials have reached an agreement on Wednesday to expand a controversial naval port. This move discredits American concerns that it could give Beijing a strategically important military base on the Gulf of Thailand.
Tea Banh, the Cambodian Defense Minister, Wang Wentian, the Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, and other officials donned white gloves to start the official "modernization of the Ream Naval Base." This will include a dry dock to ship repairs, an extended Pier, a hospital, and a workshop.
Hun Sen, a long-serving authoritarian leader, granted China in 2019 the right to establish a military base at Ream. However, Cambodia has long denied this, claiming that Cambodia's Constitution forbids foreign military facilities.
To allow larger ships to use this port, dredging has already begun. Tea Banh, the U.S. defense attache, told guests that the port could still accommodate ships up to 5,000 tonnes displacement, which is an improvement on the 1,000-ton capacity, but it was too shallow to hold any smaller naval ships.
Tea Banh stated, in front of a sign stating that the project was being funded by grant aid from the People's Republic of China.
He stated, "This port is too small, and even after upgrading it cannot be a port which would threaten any country."
Tea Banh stated that he invited the U.S., and other foreign representatives, to visit the base in order for them to see "there is nothing here." However, he said that the facility would become a restricted military area with no access for foreign countries once construction is completed.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh reiterated American concerns about a Chinese military presence at Ream, which could pose a threat to Cambodia's autonomy as well as undermine regional security.
In an email to The Associated Press, Stephanie Arzate, embassy spokesperson, stated that the U.S. and other countries in the region were concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the project's intent, nature and scope as well as the role played by the PRC military in construction of the facility.
Ream is facing the Gulf of Thailand which lies adjacent to the South China Sea. China has asserted aggressively its claim to almost the entire strategic waterway. The U.S. refuses to recognize China's claim and regularly conducts military maneuvers in the area to confirm that they are international waters.
Wang, the Chinese Ambassador to China, stated that the construction will be in accordance with a plan approved by Hun Sen (Chinese President Xi Jinping) earlier this year in order to "further encourage the building of a community having a shared future and strategic significance."
According to the Chinese delegation's English translation, he stated that "China and Cambodia are ironclad brothers", being both economical in words and generous in action. He said that they have been treating each other with sincerity, and stood side-by side during difficult times.
In November, the U.S. sanctioned two top Cambodian defense officials for graft allegations related to construction financing at Ream Base. Wang lashed out at this move without mentioning the United States.
He stated that "Some countries continue to smear legitimate exchanges between China and Cambodia and arbitrarily place unilateral sanctions on Cambodia under false subterfuges of 'democracy’ and 'human right, blatantly interfering with Cambodia's internal affairs via 'long-arm jurisdiction.' We strongly oppose all of these bad behavior."
He stated that the base would be a monument to the "ironclad friendship" and cooperation between the militaries of China and Cambodia when it is completed.
China has one recognized foreign military base. It is located in Djibouti, a poor but strategically important Horn of Africa country. However, many believe that the People's Liberation Army of China is busy building an overseas military network.
Beijing signed recently a security agreement in which it agreed to protect the Solomon Islands. This has raised concerns about a Chinese outpost in the Pacific and has also reached out to other islands in the region.
The United States has more foreign military bases than any other nation, including several facilities in the Asia Pacific region.
Rising from Bangkok