Minister of National Defence Tea Banh has reiterated that the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province belongs exclusively to Cambodia, and will not serve the interest of any other nation.

While emphasising Cambodia’s rights to modernise its military, he said the base does not pose any threat to global or regional security, noting that it is merely undergoing renovations in order to strengthen the Kingdom’s defence capabilities.

Two days after he and several senior ministry officials completed a June 30 inspection of the Ream base, Tea Banh decried the allegations which are circulating in the international media that the base somehow belongs to China and will become the second overseas Chinese military base in the world, as part of its South China Sea policy.

“I want to emphasise that the work being done on the naval base aims to serve national sovereignty. Cambodia owns the base – no one else, period. We sought assistance, and found it from China. They have assisted us with our infrastructure at sea,” he said on August 1.

He explained that China had provided support with ports, workshops, accommodation buildings and military training facilities in order to enhance Cambodian militarily capacities in the cause of peace.

“Unlike some foreign allegations, the upgrades are no threat to regional security, and the Kingdom has the right to modernise its defence sector,” he added.

He pointed out that the improved facilities of the base would allow the Cambodian navy to service and maintain its aging fleet of vessels more efficiently, while also allowing for the possibility of accommodating medium sized ships, should the Kingdom acquire them in the future.

“The modernisation of the base was not easy. We sought assistance for decades before we were finally able to carry out these solid infrastructure upgrades. They will meet the physical needs of Cambodia at sea for many years,” he said.

Ddefence minister Tea Banh inspects the construction at Ream Naval Base on July 30. TEA BANH VIA FB

Thong Mengdavid, a research fellow at the Asia Vision Institute’s Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies, echoed the remarks.

“The development of the base improves the maintenance facilities of the Cambodian navy, and increased the number of vessels which can dock. It is the chief strategic centre of defence operations related to the Kingdom’s sovereignty at sea, including cooperation and military exercises with neighbouring countries and other visitors,” he said.

He added that the development of the base would enable Cambodia to defend itself more effectively, and served the interests of the Kingdom, not any foreign power as claimed.

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, noted that military modernisation processes tend to cause concerns among neighbouring counties, so it was unsurprising that some saw the upgrades as a threat to their security.

“As China and the US are competing for influence, the modernisation of the Ream Naval Base is viewed as a threat by the West,” he explained.

“In this sense, the allegations of a Chinese military presence in Cambodia were inevitable. The Kingdom will likely be under pressure from other allegations in the future,” he added.

Vannak believed the topic of the base would remain a heated one in both regional and international forums.

The base first attracted controversy in the minds of the international community – especially the US and its allies – in October 2020, when a US-funded building at the base was demolished. Since then, the US has accused Cambodia of giving exclusive access to China.

Both the Kingdom and China have repeatedly denied the allegations, noting that the Cambodian Constitution stipulates that foreign military bases will not be permitted on its territory. Nor shall it establish military bases abroad, except within the UN framework.