Minister of National Defence Tea Banh said the development of the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province will proceed as scheduled.
The upgrades, which he said were the result of a 10-year study, require a dismantling of old buildings at the base including the Tactical Command Headquarters (TCH) and a boat maintenance facility – both funded by the US and Australia.
“The construction of all infrastructures at the Ream Naval Base will start soon because everything has been studied. That is why we need to dismantle those [old] buildings, it’s a fact. Everything [infrastructures] will appear there continually. There is still a long way to go, it takes time,” Banh told The Post on November 10.
“We will build a deepwater port, a beautiful port that is capable of docking medium-side vessels. We have a maintenance facility that can repair vessels weighing thousands of tonnes. But it needs time. I want to make it clear that this work is starting and we need to relocate the National Committee for Maritime Security’s Tactical Command Headquarters that once stood on the Ream Naval Base.”
On November 9, the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Study (CSIS), through its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, released another report about the demolition of the second US-funded building – a boat maintenance facility built at the Ream base in 2017.
It said the facility was demolished in phases between late October and November 2, which it said purportedly supported Cambodia’s claim that the TCH had merely been relocated.
The group, however, was highly sceptical of the Cambodian government’s rationale for the relocation of the TCH, which it said was built just three years ago.
On October 2, the CSIS published its first report on the TCH relocation along with a US-based newspaper article that claimed Cambodia and China had signed a ‘secret deal’ which would grant the latter exclusive access to the Ream Naval Base for 30 years. It said the deal could be renewed every 10 years afterwards.
Cambodian leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have repeatedly denied such claim, saying Cambodia welcomed vessels from any country to dock with prior request.
Banh said on November 10 that the Ream Naval Base was being upgraded to enhance Cambodia’s capabilities and address its needs and interests, not to serve the purpose of any other countries.
He confirmed that the two buildings were funded by the US and Australia, which had also equipped the facilities with materials and donated boats to be used for maritime activities.
“This case is like drama series. They [US and Australia] helped us a little bit, but they attached a lot of conditions for us. I think sometimes we have to free ourselves from those conditions because they only hinder us from advancing ourselves and addressing defence needs. We need to move on,” Banh said.
Chad Roedemeier, the spokesman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh, said the US was disappointed that Cambodian military authorities demolished another US-funded maritime security facility. He said the demolition was done without notification or explanation.
“The prime minister [Hun Sen] has said Cambodia would not allow an exclusive or permanent foreign military presence anywhere in the country and that ships from around the world will be welcomed to [dock] at Ream. We hope the government continues to abide by that position,” he said.
Chheang Vannarith, the president of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), said the US’ disappointment was dependant on how the US perceived the relocation of the buildings.
Bilateral dialogue and consultation are critical to promoting mutual understanding, he said.
Asked if he believed there was a secret deal with China, Vannarith said: “We need to move from a ‘post-truth world’ to a ‘truth world’. We need facts and evidence to support our arguments and positions. If the US still believes that Cambodia and China have a ‘secret deal’, it should release the evidence to the public. Regional observers and analysts are really interested to see it.”
Royal Academy of Cambodia president Sok Touch said Cambodia should only notify the US about the relocation of the buildings to show respect for US humanitarian aid. But in this case, he said, Cambodia can remove those buildings if they are responding to actual needs, as they are in Cambodian territory.
Touch said he did not believe there was a ‘secret deal’ between the two countries because Cambodia’s Constitution does not allow for such a deal. All agreements must be drafted by the government and passed by the National Assembly, he said.
“It is actually a geopolitical issue. The US tries to [control] countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN]. Vietnam, a communist country, is a partner of the US. So, when Cambodia has close relations with China, the US loses in its geopolitics. There is nothing related to the relocation of those buildings,” Touch said.