Minister of National Defence Tea Banh on May 31 explained the role that Chinese financial aid played in the construction of the Ream Naval Base, saying Cambodia has every right to receive development assistance from any country.
Tea Banh also reaffirmed that the government would not allow the presence of any foreign military bases in the Kingdom.
The minister hit back at a news report by US-based Radio Free Asia (RFA), which claimed he had confessed that Cambodia allowed China to develop the Ream Naval Base after the dismantling of the US-sponsored facility.
RFA linked the topic to the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman, who is expected to meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 1.
In an interview with The Post on May 31, Tea Banh said he did not confess anything but merely spoke the truth.
He said Cambodia has full rights to receive all kinds of aid necessary for the country’s development. For the construction of the Ream Naval Base, the Kingdom had to spend a great deal of time looking for financial assistance to build it.
“They [the media] brought this topic up to say that I confessed because they always want to talk about this. China helping Cambodia is not viewed favourably by them. As you know, China has helped Cambodia in every area, in short – it is an enormous amount of aid. Their assistance improves our people’s livelihoods and our country has developed further and been able to respond to many issues,” he said.
He added that the construction of the naval base will upgrade the nation’s defences and give Cambodia a decent naval base consisting of a workshop to repair ships and a better dockyard.
Cambodia does not currently have a workshop and its dockyard is small and in a low-water area making it hard for ships to dock there, he explained.
“[China] responded to us with assistance and Cambodia is grateful and thankful to them for their help. This assistance came after a clear discussion with them and it has no strings attached.
“They helped build the port, workshop and other things at the Ream Naval Base and they spent a lot of money – not just a few riel. The construction itself cost a moderate amount of money, but I cannot say how much it was,” he said.
The defence minister said the base construction proceeded only after a regular bidding process was carried out and a Chinese company won the contract. The company brought along engineers and has made efforts to use Cambodians in its labour force.
“It’s Cambodia who will use this [naval] base and it’s Cambodia who develops this land. Doesn’t Cambodia have this right? Why can’t Cambodia seek assistance to develop the country? The constitution states clearly that the Kingdom of Cambodia reserves the right to accept all foreign aid including weapons, military assistance and other issue in order to protect the homeland and maintain order in the country.
“If the Constitution states this, how can I stand still and do nothing?” Tea Banh stressed, adding that concerns about the Ream Naval Base being used exclusively by China was the same old story which has been raised now and again because of the US’ and China’s broader geopolitical contest.
“They speak about the topic with ignorance. They see Cambodia as a place having no laws, where anyone has the right to do anything.
“We explained things to them many times, but they don’t care about it. If we are not fulfilling their wishes, they will keep on talking about it. They’ve said now and again that if Cambodia allows China to do this, then the relations with the US will be troublesome,” he said.
China’s assistance with the base construction is no new revelation, either. Last June, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the dockyard should not be seen as a Chinese facility just because it was funded by China.
“Frankly speaking, we needed the Chinese financing to build it. However, we would welcome funding from all interested parties.
“On access to the Ream Naval Base, I wish to declare that we will welcome ships from all countries including the US, France, Canada, India, UK, Japan, Australia – not just from China – to make port calls or to participate in joint exercises with Cambodia,” Hun Sen said, adding that Cambodia welcomes any aid from any country to build the base headquarters and develop the port.
Asked to define the difference between assistance to construct the naval base and the construction of a foreign naval base, Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute, said: “Transparency and consistency are critical to trust-building. Cambodia’s foreign policy has been evolving around diversification and inclusive multi-directional engagement.”