The Cambodian defense minister on Tuesday said that another United States-built facility at the Ream Naval Base had been demolished recently, confirming satellite images released by a think-tank early this week.
The Washington D.C.-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies released satellite imagery and analysis through its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on Monday, which showed that a boat maintenance facility at Ream was torn down in late October and early November.
“The building was deconstructed in stages, not just knocked down. Its red roof tiles, found on most facilities at Ream, were carefully removed before the roof and walls were taken down,” AMTI said in the finding released early Tuesday morning.
The relatively-new boathouse became the second U.S.-funded facility at the Ream Naval Base to be torn down after another building at the tactical command headquarters of the Cambodian National Committee for Maritime Security was demolished in early September.
At the time, Cambodia confirmed that the National Committee for Maritime Security was being moved to a new location north of the base, increasing concerns of the prospect of a Chinese presence at Ream.
The U.S. has consistently raised concerns that Cambodia was allowing China’s People’s Liberation Army access to the naval base, a claim that has been backed by a 2019 report from the Wall Street Journal.
An NCMS statement in October said that the U.S. had been informed of the plan to relocate the facility in 2017 and had received no objections from international partners. The boat maintenance facility was constructed in 2017 by a U.S. naval engineering team in the same year.
These claims have been consistently rejected by the Cambodian government, with Prime Minister Hun Sen in October demanding that any evidence to suggest otherwise be made public by his detractors.
His administration has maintained that the demolition was part of moving the tactical command headquarters to Koh Preap, which is closer to Sihanoukville’s deep seaport.
But Gregory Poling, the director at AMTI and a maritime expert, said this was another piece of evidence to show that China would be given either “permanent or rotational” access to the base.
“We’ve had a steady stream of leaks and evidence for two years indicating that is happening, and the stories Cambodian officials have used to explain each new development have made little sense and often been contradictory,” Gregory Poling said in an email.
“Ream would give China valuable access for intelligence collection and surveillance across the Gulf of Thailand and U.S. forces operating nearby, especially those visiting Thailand or operating out of Singapore,” he added.
Defence Minister Tea Banh, in a media interview on Tuesday, downplayed such concerns and reiterated his government’s position on the issue.
“It needs to move to the new place that there is no need to keep it [at Ream] that the facilities will be utilized for developments at the Ream Naval Base,” Tea Banh told Radio Free Asia.
Tea Banh, who could not be reached on Tuesday, neither specified nor provided details on the Cambodian government’s plan for Ream Naval Base.
The Royal Cambodian Navy’s Chief of Naval Staff Vann Bunleang told Nikkei Asian Review in October that China would aid in the construction of new piers, boat repair facilities, and help with sand-dredging operations to deepen the now-shallow bay.
Vann Bunleang and Royal Cambodian Navy Commander Tea Vinh declined to comment on Tuesday, and the Defense Ministry spokesperson Chhum Socheat could not be reached.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on Tuesday expressed its displeasure at the demolition of facilities it had funded at the Ream Naval Base.
“We are disappointed that Cambodian military authorities have demolished another maritime security facility funded by the United States, without notification or explanation,” said U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier in an email.
Roedemeier pointed to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s remarks earlier this year where he said the government will not provide “exclusive or permanent foreign military presence” at Ream.
“We hope the government continues to abide by that position,” Roedemeier said.