U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday urged the Cambodian government to open the naval base it is modernizing with Chinese funds, saying use of the site would pose a threat to Southeast Asia if used for China’s defense.
Blinken, in Phnom Penh to participate in the ASEAN regional meeting, hosted this year by Cambodia, called for calm in the face of China’s live-fire response in the waters surrounding Taiwan in reaction to this week’s visit to the self-governing island by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
WATCH: Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks with VOA Khmer.
Blinken also said ASEAN member nations should counter the military junta that grabbed power in Myanmar in February 2021 by seeking “ways to put more pressure on the regime — economic pressure, political pressure. They should engage with all of the representatives of the people of Myanmar, including the National Unity Government.”
He added, “We have to press the regime to allow humanitarian assistance to reach [the] people in Myanmar. And we should look at ways to make sure that weapons don't get to the regime.”
While in Phnom Penh, Blinken held wide-ranging talks with Hun Sen, Cambodia’s leader since 1985, that included discussions of how to help get the nation’s cashew and mango crops into the world market, and the return of its far-flung looted artifacts, “something I feel very strongly about, protecting culture,” he told VOA Khmer.
The talks drilled down on what Blinken called “the importance of strengthening democracy here in Cambodia, and in particular making sure that as elections are going forward next year, that they're truly representative and inclusive.
"This is something of course that Cambodia has done before: having multiparty elections. And the United States is not in favor of any particular person or any particular party. We’re in favor of a process, a democratic process, that allows everyone in Cambodia to feel like they're being represented in the elections and ultimately in government.”
Hun Sen’s government has been criticized for its actions chilling democracy, most recently in suing the opposition party chair for alleging May elections were unfair.
In discussing the Ream Naval Base, in southwestern Cambodia, Blinken told VOA Khmer that U.S. concern “is first and foremost in making sure that Cambodia has a truly independent foreign policy, and is not, does not feel pressured, of course, by anyone.
"And when it comes to the Ream Naval Base, I think countries throughout the region would be very concerned if any one country had exclusive control or use of any portion of the base, or was doing anything there that undermined the security of other countries in the region. So, I think it's important to have transparency and to make sure that the base is open to all, and not the exclusive use of any one country.”
The U.S. has alleged that China will maintain a military presence at Ream Naval Base, Beijing’s second such overseas outpost and its first in the strategically significant Indo-Pacific region. It also has a post in Djibouti, at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Tea Banh, Cambodia’s defense minister, said in June that the Ream base would most likely not be open for full examination by any foreigners after completion. He said that Cambodia would not allow any foreign military base on its soil and “has no intention to provoke any threats to any country, and Cambodia is never against other countries ‘military building efforts.’ ”
“Cambodia just wants to strengthen its protection capacities to curb against pressure and impacts of the current geopolitics competition,” he said, adding: “Cambodia has no policy to choose one country against one country.”
In October, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh told VOA Khmer that the Cambodian government had “not been fully transparent about the intent, nature, and scope of this project.”
The Wall Street Journal in 2019 also reported that China has signed an agreement to have People's Liberation Army officers stationed at the naval base. Satellite imagery has shown the demolition of buildings at the base, some built by the U.S., and the recent construction of two structures on the northern half of the base.
Ream is on the Gulf of Thailand near the South China Sea, where China has claimed sovereignty and disregarded international law.
The U.S. and other nations worry that China could use a Cambodian base to enforce those claims and heighten regional tensions, which are currently white hot due to the Taiwan visit by Pelosi, a longtime China critic.
Blinken addressed Pelosi’s visit, saying, “Speaker Pelosi is from our legislative branch, which is an independent, coequal branch of government. And she has the — had the right to make that visit, as many members of our Congress have visited Taiwan, including this year.
"But regardless of that, China's reaction is so disproportionate and so dangerous. Whatever it feels about the visit, launching 11 ballistic missiles over Taiwan, sending its ships all around Taiwan. Five of the missiles that it launched landed near Japan. And I think what you're hearing from countries throughout the region, including ASEAN, which put out a statement, is real concern about how destabilizing and dangerous these actions can be.”
Blinken said the United States "is not going to engage in any provocative actions of our own. We think the seas should be calmed. The Taiwan Strait is of vital importance to virtually every country in the region – so much commerce goes through there. If that were interrupted, it would have a terrible impact on the global economy, and on everyone's desire to recover from COVID.”
About 48% of the world’s 5,400 operational container ships passed through the Taiwan Strait in the first seven months of this year, according to Bloomberg.
Sophal Ear, a scholar of Cambodia’s politics and development at Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management, told VOA Khmer on Friday, “I think Secretary of State Blinken has reiterated what has been known for years: that Cambodia should be open and transparent on Ream Naval Base and that the exclusive use of Ream by any one country— China, in this case — is a dangerous precedent that should not be permitted. From a regional perspective, it destabilizes the Southeast Asian region.”
On June 8, 2022, Cambodia and China held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Ream Naval Base.
The Beijing-funded project will include construction of meeting buildings; warehouses; leisure buildings; restaurants; a sports facility; a welcome center; electricity, water and sewage infrastructure; a drydock and slipway for repairing all vessels; and two new piers and restoration of the existing one, according to Chau Phirun, the Cambodian defense ministry's director-general for logistics and technical services, who spoke at the ceremony.
“The project will take 24 months and use the technical forces of [the] Chinese People’s Liberation Army and large companies which have experience in China,” he said.