US questions Chinese warships’ stop in Cambodia

US questions Chinese warships’ stop in Cambodia

Beijing insists its funding for upgrade Cambodian naval base was for non-military purposes

Cambodian servicemen stand guard at the Ream Naval Base near Sihanoukville. (Photo: Reuters)
Cambodian servicemen stand guard at the Ream Naval Base near Sihanoukville. (Photo: Reuters)

The United States has called for more information about a naval base in Cambodia after a rare visit by Chinese warships, renewing concern that Beijing wants a military facility in the country.

“The Cambodian people, neighbouring countries, Asean and the region more broadly would benefit from transparency on activities at Ream,” Wesley Holzer, an spokesman at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, said on Thursday when asked about the Chinese vessels.

“The United States and countries in the region have consistently expressed concern about the intent, nature and scope of construction at Ream Naval Base,” Mr Holzer said in a written response to a question from Bloomberg News.

This included the role China’s military “is playing in this process and in future use of the facility”, he added.

Several Chinese vessels recently became the first known foreign warships to dock at the Ream base, Radio Free Asia reported on Tuesday. Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Seiha said on social media on Sunday that he visited the ships “in preparation for training”.

Neither the Chinese Foreign Ministry nor the Cambodian Defence Ministry immediately responded for requests for comment. 

China has supported Cambodia’s move to redevelop the base on the Gulf of Thailand, an effort that observers say is strategically vital for Cambodia’s maritime governance.

The US has said that a military facility at Ream would be China’s first overseas base in the Indo-Pacific. In late 2022, President Joe Biden expressed concern about possible activities by China’s military there. 

A Pentagon report earlier this year said that China was seeking to “normalise its presence overseas and build closer ties to foreign militaries”. In 2022, Beijing had an overseas peacekeeping force of more than 2,000 personnel and continued work on a People’s Liberation Army facility at the Cambodian base, it said.

Cambodia has dismissed allegations that China is secretly building a naval facility on its soil. Beijing has said renovations at Ream were “aimed at strengthening the Cambodian navy’s ability to safeguard maritime territorial integrity and combat maritime crimes”.

In 2021, the US levelled sanctions against two senior Cambodian defense officials for corruption related to the naval base.

The US has been bolstering its security relationships in the region to counter China’s growing military prowess.

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