Minister of National Defence Tea Banh regards as “groundless” the accusation that Cambodia is providing China with “exclusive use” of the north portion of Ream Naval Base, calling it an “insult” and merely an excuse to undermine the Kingdom’s interests.

Tea Banh made the remark during the IISS Asia Security Summit – also commonly referred to as the Shangri-La Dialogue – held in Singapore on June 11, an event at which the naval base developments remained a popular topic of discussion that attracted many questions from the forum’s participants.

“Unfortunately, Cambodia is constantly accused of giving exclusive rights to foreign powers to use this base. I would like to emphasise that these groundless and problematic accusations are a complete insult to the Cambodian government,” he said in a plenary session on military modernisation and new defense capabilities.

Cambodia broke ground on a project for the construction of upgrades to the country’s naval capacity through the modernisation of the naval base in Preah Sihanouk province on June 8, amid fresh accusations that Cambodia had agreed to give exclusive use of the northern portion of the base to China.

The minister said that Cambodia, as owner of the base, has full rights to develop it and that the base will not be a threat to the security of any other country or the region, whether near or far.

“We consider these allegations an excuse to undermine Cambodia’s interests. I would like to solemnly declare that the capability building of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) is not just about just modernisation at Ream.

“We will continue to increase the capabilities of the RCAF not only to ensure the protection of [Cambodia’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also to successfully perform other tasks such as countering terrorism, fighting transnational crimes, search and rescue and peacekeeping operations, among other missions,” he stressed.

Tea Banh said military modernisation and defence capacity building was a requirement for every nation as they adapted to the shifting national, regional and global security environments. The most important goal, he said, was the right to defend the Kingdom’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

He added that modern capabilities are needed to respond to common threats, including counter-terrorism, maritime security, disaster relief, participation in UN peacekeeping operations and so forth.

“The most important factor in this matter is the use of military capabilities in a justified and legitimate way, especially for the common good of mankind,” he said.

He added that Cambodia had been transparent in approach to the defence sector. In early May, the Kingdom released the national security white paper for 2022 which represented Cambodia’s commitment since 1998 to actively participate in efforts to build and promote transparency and mutual confidence with other countries in the region and around the world.

“Our main goal is to live in peace with friendship, cooperation, brotherhood and equality with our neighbours and other countries in the region. And we only want to be able to defend ourselves and be able to participate in building a regional and global peace.

“It is also unfair and impossible to force us into a state of deprivation or regression as others try to expand their military power and influence almost everywhere,” he said.

Following his remarks, several questions were directed at him regarding the development of Ream Naval Base. Participants asked the defence minister to elaborate on how the base will be used and what the level of transparency at the base will be, as well as questions related to concerns about the developments in the Solomon Islands involving China.

“If you want transparency for the use of Ream Naval Base, I would like to first state that I have already offered many clarifications on this topic in Cambodia. We don’t have a large territorial sea. But we do have a maritime border. Therefore, we need the capability to defend that maritime space and our maritime territorial integrity. To that end, we need to have a proper naval base, which makes this necessary,” he said.

Tea Banh said Cambodia does not have a major port that ships can dock at except for the deepwater port in Preah Sihanouk province where large commercial ships dock.

“So, how can we protect our maritime sovereignty if we do not have a proper base? Therefore, the modernisation and the development of the repair workshop, pier and dry dock should not be a surprise.

“What is surprising for many people, however, is the fact that we have grant aid from the People’s Republic of China . . . This issue has unfortunately been interpreted as Cambodia has given exclusive use of the base to China. I would like to deny that. This is not true,” he said.

Citing Article 53 of the Cambodian Constitution, he said the Kingdom has the right to accept military assistance in order to build the base to protect its maritime sovereignty.

Before the base could be developed, Cambodia had sought aid to do so for a very long time, he noted, adding that the RCAF has received shipments of modern heavy weapons to strengthen its capabilities in accordance with its needs.

He said Cambodia is a small country that has a deep love of peace and has never opposed the development of other countries’ military capabilities.

He said the Kingdom, having gone through war and hardship, has only opposed the use of force and sanctions as their consequences are not limited to those targeted for punishment but could adversely affect innocent people as well.

Tea Banh noted that Cambodia – as a party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the chemical and biological weapons conventions, as well as the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone Treaty and other relevant international agreements – strictly adheres to these principles, which are useful for maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in the region and beyond.

Yong Kim Eng, president of the NGO People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said modernisation for the sake of safety and to ensure maritime security, disaster intervention, counter-terrorism and other military cooperation under the UN are all necessary components of Cambodia’s defence planning in line with the Constitution and also necessary for the Kingdom to be able to make contributions to the common security of the region and the world.

“However, Cambodia also needs to adhere to its foreign policy of neutrality,” he said.