Americans worried about Chinese construction at Cambodian naval base in Ream

What exactly are the Chinese doing at the Cambodian naval base at Ream, 25 kilometers south of Sihanoukville, in the Gulf of Thailand? The issue has openly preoccupied Americans since 2018, and has since given rise to a succession of calibrated leaks and requests for an explanation from them vis-à-vis Beijing’s staunchest support in Southeast Asia.

The most recent, Wednesday, October 13, saw the spokesperson for the United States Embassy in Phnom Penh, Chad Roedemeier, say in a statement that the “Cambodian government has not been fully transparent about the intent, nature and scope of this project or the role of the military in the People’s Republic of China, raising concerns about the use planned naval installation ”. Mr. Roedemeier refers to an alleged secret arrangement between China and Cambodia over access to the base by Chinese ships and military personnel.

The accusations follow the publication by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington of an October 12 update on the status of work on the Ream base as seen by satellite images. “During the months of August and September, three new buildings were built and a new road was cleared” in the northern part of the base, points out the report.

Visit with limited access

China’s involvement was confirmed by Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh during the visit to Phnom Penh on 1is Last June from Wendy Sherman, Assistant Secretary of State: “China is helping us build infrastructure, but no obligation is attached to it”, he had declared. Cambodia then offered to show the base to the American defense attaché. The latter went there on June 4, but, noting that his hosts did not show him everything, asked toe “reschedule the visit with full access as soon as possible”, will say the press release from the embassy.

The United States is all the more irritated that two structures offered by the Americans at the Ream base were destroyed in 2020: in September for the first, inaugurated in 2012 with American funding and equipped by Australia, to accommodate the tactical headquarters of the National Maritime Safety Committee. The second, in November, was a maintenance building, built in 2017, for hard-hull Zodiacs used for patrols. Satellite images indicate, reports CSIS, that these infrastructures have been deconstructed in stages, “Which could corroborate the Cambodian government’s claims that they are being relocated.”

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