Prime Minister Hun Sen urges an end to “baseless” foreign accusations surrounding the development of the Kingdom’s Ream Naval Base, as the US has consistently suggested that the base is being expanded to accommodate a Chinese military presence.
Hun Sen renewed his calls while addressing a March 16 graduation ceremony for students from Build Bright University (BBU) in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia is mordernising the naval base with a grant from China. The expansion project broke ground in June last year, in a ceremony presided over by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence Tea Banh and Chinese ambassador Wang Wentian.
The project has been criticised by the US, which has alleged for years that Cambodia has permitted a Chinese military present on its territory, despite the fact that such a presence would contradict the Kingdom’s Constitution.
“I have noted that the campaign to discredit Cambodia through false claims about the Ream Naval Base have resumed. I want to remind people abroad that they don’t need to take pictures of the base via satellite or other clandestine means,” he chided.
“We announced the construction and then held a large ceremony to break ground. It is clear that the construction is underway, and it is equally clear that it is not being carried out in secrecy. Nobody should be unduly concerned. The details of the work we are doing are freely available, people just need to ask,” he added.
Hun Sen stressed that there is nothing wrong with the Kingdom seeking to strengthen its defence capacity.
“Cambodia has the right to expand the capabilities of its naval forces. The base was previously just 2.7m deep, and needed to be dredged. This is hardly a threat to any other nation, let alone a superpower,” he said.
On February 28 and again on March 14, UK-based media outlet Naval Technology published geospatial satellite image from US-based satellite company BlackSky. It described intelligence analysis of the images as showing that the base was being prepared “to service aircraft carriers”.
In its March 14 article titled “China’s secret naval base in Cambodia, through satellite imagery”, the outlet said: “Ream Base is a hidden asset for China. But with a new geospatial intelligence system, its operations can be tracked in real-time.”
Hun Sen hit back, saying the idea that there could be any purpose in Ream Naval Base accommodating aircraft carriers is “absurd”.
“Let me respond to these ‘journalists’. Your brains are clearly weak – you were lucky that you were born in a wealthy country. Because of your limited analytical powers, you just write whatever you feel like, without thinking about it,” he mocked.
“Why on Earth would they need to moor aircraft carriers at Ream when the Kang Keng airport [Sihanouk International Airport] is close by and much easier to land on? If it were true that we allow the Chinese military to use our territory, then why would they need to land on carriers? Don’t be ridiculous,” he added.
“I send this message to those who are behind the campaign to try and stop the Kingdom from expanding its base. You are welcome to keep your satellite above the base, but I will update you as to how the construction is going, for free. Guess what? We have laid the foundations, and next we will build on top of them. What a surprise,” he joked.
The premier also pointed out the “hypocrisy of some foreign powers”, which he said have explained to Cambodia and other ASEAN member states about their nuclear submarine deals, apparently in reference to AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and US.
“They expect the leaders of ASEAN to listen to them, but do not appear to listen to the bloc leaders,” he said.
He stressed that Cambodia needs to expand the base and could seek funding from wherever it chose
He said he had discussed the issue with the new Australian ambassador to Cambodia, Justin Whyatt, and explained the importance of upgrading the Royal Cambodian Navy’s capacity to protect its sovereign territory, combat illegal drug and human trafficking, prevent illegal fishing, and eliminate other transnational crimes around its maritime border.
Hun Sen met with Whyatt on March 13, as the latter replaced the outgoing Pablo Kang.
“Once again, I stress that no foreign countries maintain a presence on Cambodian soil – or its waters,” he said, adding that once the base is completed, all foreign navies were welcome to dock there for joint military exercises.
“They have refused to accept our explanation, so I have no choice but to reject their false conclusions,” he said.
Yang Peou, secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Article 53 of the Constitution explicitly stipulates that the Kingdom maintain permanent neutral and non-alliance policies and co-exist peacefully with all countries.
Peou said the provocations through claims of Chinese military presence may have been timed to coincide with the upcoming July national election.
He also pointed out the Kingdom’s sovereign right to accept assistance from whomever it chooses.
“If any country at all offers to provide Cambodia with military aid – whether to upgrade a facility or through the provision of equipment or training – it has the right to accept it. As far as I am aware, the Kingdom is not prohibited from seeking to develop its defence capabilities,” he said.