On June 11, the US embassy's defence attache Colonel Marcus M Ferrara visited Ream Naval Base in coordination with Cambodian officials – following the recent approval by Prime Minister Hun Sen – in order to allay US concerns regarding a Chinese military presence at the base raised by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman.
The visit was brief and the embassy then issued a statement claiming that Cambodian military officials refused to grant the defence attache full access to the naval base and the US embassy renewed its call for another visit at the earliest opportunity with "full access".
On June 11, The Post wrote to the embassy to inquire about its definition of "full access" to the military base and whether such access to a military base has ever been granted by any nation's military to any other non-allied foreign military – an enquiry to which US embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier responded "we will let our statement stand", without providing further elaboration.
The Post also pressed the embassy for more details on the visit, such as what the defence attache had or had not seen at the base, but the spokesman did not provide an answer, replying only that he would be "out of the office" until July 15.
On June 12, The Post asked the embassy for more details via both email and Facebook, especially regarding where the embassy’s defence attaché wanted to visit that he had been refused access to.
The embassy was also asked whether the US intended to visit the military bases of other countries in the same manner in which they have Cambodia’s, but the embassy spokesperson said he did not have an answer.
General Suon Samnang – deputy director-general of the Ministry of National Defence's General Department of Politics and Foreign Affairs – told The Post that he brought US embassy defense attache Colonel Ferrara to visit Ream Naval Base to have a look at the ships and the workshop built with Australian aid.
After that, Colonel Ferrara was brought to see a hospital building and the new location of the frontline command centre of the open-sea committee where he suspected Chinese military presence, as he requested.
“We prepared important locations which he wished to see in order to clear up their suspicions about an alleged Chinese military base," General Samnang said.
General Nem Sowath – adviser to Minister of Defence Tea Bahn – also expressed his surprise and dismay over the embassy’s claims.
He told The Post: “What we saw from the embassy is a statement that is factless and untrue. It’s a big misunderstanding to interpret [our actions today] as un-cooperative.”
On June 12, Cambodia’s defence ministry issued a press statement to clarify what the US embassy had said.
The defence ministry’s statement said that Colonel Ferrara’s visit lasted for three hours, starting at 9am. After the visit to the above mentioned places came to an end, Colonel Ferrara requested access to another location which was not in the plans that both sides had agreed upon and the request was turned down.
“Based on these factors, the defence ministry views the US embassy’s statement as a provocation and a fabrication that brings more gloom to Cambodia-US military relations,” the ministry said.
The ministry “insisted” that the US stop inventing new scenarios that had a negative impact on Cambodia-US military ties and that they respect Cambodia’s sovereignty and its military’s procedures.
The ministry said it will still thoroughly consider any future requests to visit the base.
“The only activity inside the military base that access was permitted for was a visit. Not a [comprehensive] search or [total] scrutiny,” the ministry said.
The ministry and General Samnang did not say which location exactly the US defense attaché’s request to visit had been refused.
Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia's International Relations Institute, said he believed that no country should grant unconditional access to military bases to a foreign defense attaché like they were a prosecutor with a search warrant.
Phea said there should be a method to clear up these issues of alleged Chinese military presence without violating a sovereign country's military secrets that aren’t relevant to the issue of a Chinese military presence.
“We don’t have to talk about foreign military attachés as even ordinary people cannot have access to a military base. Our question to the US is will they let ordinary people enter the 800 military bases they have outside of US territory?
“Cambodia already showed a gentle manner to allow the defence attaché to visit the naval base. But as they already know, the military is the heart and soul of a nation’s security,” Phea said.
Jean-Francois Tain, a geopolitical analyst, said: “The defence attaché being “permitted or not permitted to visit any location came from the agreement made by both sides and it is the right of [Cambodia] as a sovereign country to decide”.
Both Prime Minister Hun Sen and defence minister Tea Banh have repeatedly denied that there was any truth to the speculation about a Chinese military presence in Cambodia, stressing that the Cambodian Constitution does not allow foreign military bases on the Kingdom’s territory.