Cambodia on June 8 broke ground on the construction of upgrades to the country’s naval capacity through the modernisation of Ream Naval Base, amid fresh speculation that China is “secretly building a naval facility” for its own “exclusive use” despite the Kingdom’s repeated denials of these accusations.

The groundbreaking ceremony kicked off the construction project to rehabilitate the dry dock, pier and slipway along with the construction of a vessel maintenance workshop at the Modernization Centre of Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province. The construction is being paid for with a grant from China.

The ceremony was attended by a number of western and other diplomats who had partly been invited to allay their suspicions that China is secretly building a military base there. The envoys included Australian ambassador Pablo Kang and Indian ambassador Devyani Khobragade, among others.

Two days before the ceremony, the US-based newspaper Washington Post published an article that cited unnamed western and Chinese officials who said that the Chinese military would have “exclusive use of the northern portion of the base, while their presence would remain concealed”.

The accusation is not new. Back in 2019, The Wall Street Journal also reported that Cambodia and China had signed a 30-year secret agreement to allow Chinese military to use the base, but all such accusations have been denied by Cambodian officials on various occasions, including by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“I invited our friends to see that there is nothing going on like what is being alleged by people saying that the Ream Base modernisation is for the exclusive use of China’s People’s Liberation Army. It is not true, but they come to these conclusions anyways. It just isn’t possible,” said Minister of National Defence Tea Banh at the groundbreaking ceremony in front of an audience that included the aforementioned foreign diplomats.

“This is the territory of Cambodia. Cambodia has full rights to build whatever we want – and how much we need to modernise depends on the extent of our abilities and needs. Actually we want to build it even bigger than this,” he added.

Currently owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post is one of the largest newspapers in the world and its report has been widely cited by media around the globe.

Its reports also attracted the attention of Australian Senator Penny Wong, who was recently appointed as foreign minister. Wong then raised her concerns about it to Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn on June 7 during a phone call just after she assumed office.

Defence minister Tea Banh and Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian attend the groundbreaking ceremony at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province on June 8. DEFENCE MINISTRY

The ministry said in a press statement that Sokhonn had tried to clear up Wong’s concerns, saying that these were groundless accusations against Cambodia made solely by anonymous sources.

Sokhonn said the Constitution does not permit foreign military bases or a foreign military presence on Cambodian soil. He also explained the necessity of the base’s renovations, which only served to strengthen the country’s own naval capacities so that Cambodia can protect its maritime integrity and combat crime on the high seas.

“He touched on the gesture of good will offered by the Cambodian government in allowing the foreign military attaches from embassies in Phnom Penh to visit Ream Naval Base, which is an unprecedented practice in transparency by any country vis-a-vis one of its own military bases,” the statement said.

According to defence minister Tea Banh, the port at Ream Naval Base is currently too shallow at just 7m in depth, but after its rehabilitation it will be able to dock medium-sized vessels.

He said the ministry had invited foreign diplomats to see the project and ask their questions now because when the construction starts, they may not be able to visit every location on the base due to national security issues.

“On issues related to the military, there is no need for me to explain that I have to store the missiles here or I have to place the rockets there, or my maintenance workshop is here and our warehouse is there. No, that is not necessary.

“I have been in the military for a long time now, until my hair turned gray, and I have never seen anyone ask another nation’s military to do this or that. So this construction site will not permit open access in the future because after construction is completed, our equipment will be placed everywhere around here.

“This work should not be interrupted any further. Now you can see everywhere all together as a group,” he said. “Whoever wants to say something afterwards, it’s up to them … we, the owners, have the right to prepare and do what necessary for national defence,” he said.

However, the minister made it clear that foreign guests could still visit the base if they requested to do so, but not the entirety of it due to national security issues. He then instructed Ream Naval Base Commander Ouk Seiha to welcome visitors to the base at its reception building.

The renovation of the base uses both Cambodian and Chinese construction workers, and a Chinese construction company won the bidding to carry out the work, according to the defence minister.

He also hit back at The Washington Post for wrongly reporting that US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had visited the base during her trip to Cambodia in June of last year.

“I’ll give another example. The Washington Post published an article saying that Wendy Sherman came to Ream. She never came here. And they said that information about Ream was shielded from her. It’s always so hard to explain anything to them,” he said.

According to a defence white paper published in May, Cambodia will not only modernise and upgrade Ream Naval Base, but plans to do so in other areas of its national defence such as improving its capacity to combat terrorism and transnational crime, upgrading its disaster rescue training and equipment and further enhancing its capabilities for UN peacekeeping missions.

Banner showing the major construction projects at Ream Naval Base on June 8. SECRETARIAT OF REAM NAVAL BASE

The defence minister also said that Cambodia will buy more modern and heavy military equipment from other countries to strengthen the country’s military capacity in accordance with Article 53 of the Constitution.

He said Cambodia does not intend to threaten or intimidate any country and the Kingdom has never rejected aid from other countries for the development of military capacities. Although the base is being upgraded with a grant from China, he said Cambodia welcomes other countries to help with upgrading the country’s military capacity.

“Cambodia is working to upgrade our defence capacity to ensure that we can withstand the pressure and the influence caused by [other nations’] geopolitical rivalries, which is currently happening. We do this to ensure that we can move forward with peace, security and prosperity while also being able to participate in peacekeeping in the region and around the world,” Tea Banh said.

Citing Article 53 of the Constitution, Tea Banh said Cambodia will remain neutral and non-aligned with any countries. He said the Kingdom welcomes and will always be open to support from other nations, without any preference or discrimination but with respect for their mutual interests.

“I stress again that Cambodia reserves its right to accept military equipment, weapons, ammunition, military training and other assistance for self-defence and to ensure national security and social order internally,” he said.

Chinese ambassador Wang Wentian was directly asked after the ceremony whether China would have the “exclusive” use of the northern portion of Ream Naval Base as stated in the Washington Post’s article.

“This project respects the laws of Cambodia. Honestly speaking, this project has mutual benefits for both countries. But some other countries criticise it and speculate about it. Some countries criticise it with bad intent. They say wrong things in order to do wrong things,” he said through a translator.

Wang also said it was not China that has the most overseas troops. The ambassador was apparently referring to the US, which reportedly has nearly 800 military bases in over 70 countries around the world.

“Honestly speaking, around the world, which nation has the largest military presence outside of its own territory? It is not China. And which country is always trying to increase its own influence, strength and power? It is not China,” he said, adding that China has never had any wish to achieve global dominance.