US' request granted but no date for visit to Ream Naval Base

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Sailors stand guard at the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Despite being granted the authorisation they requested, the US embassy in Phnom Penh has not confirmed when its officials would pay a visit to the under-renovation Ream Naval Base.

US government officials and western media sources have frequently speculated that there was Chinese military presence at the base, an assertion that Cambodia has repeatedly denied.

US speculation regarding China’s alleged military activities at the naval base has been the subject matter of several high level talks in recent US-Cambodia relations on top of trade, democracy and human rights.

During a half-day visit to the Kingdom on June 1, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman also brought up the subject. She called on Cambodia to allow foreign embassy attaches to visit the naval base, according to US embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier.

Sherman returned to the topic yet again on June 2 during a virtual Asia Pacific Media Hub meeting. She said she had a conversation with Prime Minister Hun Sen regarding the direction Cambodia is headed in diplomatically in relation to alleged Chinese military presence at Ream naval base, along with human rights and democracy issues.

“Deputy Secretary Sherman expressed serious concerns about PRC military activities at Ream Naval Base, which undermine Cambodian sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations,” Roedemeier said using the acronym for the official name of China.

Minister of National Defence Tea Banh confirmed to local media outlet Fresh News that the government had authorised the visit of US military attaches to the naval base, following Sherman’s request.

The visit was agreed to by Prime Minister Hun Sen who also suggested that they should be accompanied by journalists in order to ensure transparency.

Asked when the US embassy attache will visit the base, Roedemeier only said: “Routine and frequent visits by all foreign military attaches to Ream Naval Base can contribute to increased transparency.”

Tea Banh and government spokesman Phay Siphan could not be reached for further comment.

But in an interview with The Post last week, Tea Banh said China had provided assistance for the naval base’s construction and that Cambodia had the right to receive such foreign assistance. He stressed that the Kingdom’s Constitution does not allow any foreign military bases on Cambodian territory.

In a response to The Post's inquiries about China's alleged military presence in the Kingdom, the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh said: "Speculation is speculation. Truth will prevail."

Bradley J Murg, senior adviser and distinguished research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said a visit by an American naval attache would certainly be a much-needed confidence building measure for Washington. He suggested that other states that have expressed concerns such as Vietnam should also be included.

"While such a visit will be useful, it is just a first step. The reality here is a very complex problem of credible commitment for which there are no short term, quick fixes,” he said.

The proposed visit to the base will be the second trip there done in the name of transparency. The first outing was organised in July 2019 when the defence ministry invited some 70 national and international journalists to inspect the base in response to the same accusations.