Cambodia, China deny naval base reports as Australia expresses concern

PHNOM PENH: Cambodia and Beijing denied a report on Tuesday (June 7) that they are building a secret naval facility for the Chinese fleet, as Australia’s new prime minister expressed concerns and called for transparency.

The Washington Post, citing unnamed Western officials, said a new facility at the Ream base in Cambodia — strategically located on the Gulf of Thailand — was being built for “exclusive” use by the Chinese navy.

The base has been a sore spot in US-Cambodia relations for years, with Washington long suspecting it is being converted for use by China as it seeks to bolster its international influence with a network of military outposts.

Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn dismissed the report as “baseless allegations” in a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, according to a statement released by Phnom Penh late Tuesday.

Earlier, a spokesperson had said that the development of the base was “no secret”.

“Cambodia will not allow the Chinese military to use it exclusively or develop the site as its military base,” government spokesman Phay Siphan told AFP.

The Cambodian defense minister and the Chinese ambassador will attend a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday for new facilities in Ream, including a boat repair shop and pier.

But Australia’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, in Indonesia for a visit to strengthen diplomatic relations to counter growing Chinese assertiveness in the region, labeled the reports “concerning”.

“We encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intentions and ensure that its activities support regional security and stability,” he told reporters, saying Cambodia had assured Canberra that no foreign military would have exclusive access to the Ream base.

Australia is increasingly concerned about Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific.

A leaked draft of a pact between the Soloman Islands and China in April raised concerns that it would allow Chinese naval deployment to the Pacific islands — less than 2,000 km from Australia.

DENIAL FROM CHINA, CAMBODIA

Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly insisted that the work is nothing more than modernizing the base with a new boat maintenance facility developed with Chinese help.

“Cambodia does not need the presence of a foreign army on its territory,” he said in a speech last month.

China also denied that the base would be solely for use by their navy.

“The transformation of Ream Naval Base is only intended to strengthen the Cambodian naval forces’ capabilities to maintain maritime territorial sovereignty and act against naval crimes,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing on Tuesday. against reporters.

He added that Washington’s criticisms were “evil suspicions to attack and smear Cambodia”.

Concerns about the base date back to 2019, when the Wall Street Journal reported a secret draft agreement that allowed Beijing to dock warships there.

Since then, Cambodia has dismantled facilities at the base that were built in part with US money and played host to US exercises.

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