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Cambodia Says U.S. Creating ‘New Scenarios’ About Controversial Ream Visit

FILE - Ream Naval Base, Preah Sihanouk Province, in February 2021. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)
FILE - Ream Naval Base, Preah Sihanouk Province, in February 2021. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)

Cambodia has accused the U.S. of “creating scenarios” in relation to a much-hyped visit to Ream Naval Base last week, a tour that was meant to allay U.S. concerns of an alleged Chinese military presence at the base.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh released a statement last Friday saying defense attaché Colonel Marcus M. Ferrara cut short a visit to Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province after not being given “full access” to facilities at the base. The visit was brokered by a senior U.S. diplomat who raised concerns over plans to host Chinese military assets at the base.

In response, the Cambodian Defense Ministry released a statement on Saturday alleging that it had worked to accommodate requests for the tour of Ream made by the U.S., but that the U.S. official had asked to visit parts of the base that were not in the “initial request.”

The U.S.’ request infringed on Cambodia’s sovereignty, the Defense Ministry said, and claimed that the U.S. was creating new scenarios about the base.

“Due to the above factors, the Ministry of National Defense regards the reaction of the U.S. Embassy as striving to create new problems and distorting the facts, which could further negatively impact the defense relationship between the two countries,” the statement reads.

The Defense Ministry added that the U.S. defense attaché was taken to two newly-constructed buildings – used as accommodate laborers – the naval pier and ships, an Australia-supported naval workshop, a hospital and to Koh Preap, which is the site of the new Tactical Command Headquarters for the National Committee for Maritime Security.

The U.S. “demanded to enter another place which was not included in the initial request,” the statement reads.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday said that Ferrara cut short the base visit after not being given “full access” and asked that another tour be scheduled soon.

“When it became clear he would not be granted adequate access, Colonel Ferrara ended the tour and requested Cambodian military officials reschedule the visit with full access at the earliest opportunity,” the U.S. Embassy statement reads.

The U.S. also called for routine visits by the U.S. and foreign military officials to ensure transparency and mutual trust.

The Defense Ministry statement did not specify which part of the base the U.S. defense official wanted to visit, nor did the U.S. Embassy’s release.

The visit was scheduled after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman raised the Ream issue during a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this month. She directly asked for an explanation about Chinese military officials at the base.

The U.S. has alleged that China will maintain a military presence at Ream Naval Base after on-going upgrades are completed. After the Sherman’s visit, Tea Banh told local media that the Chinese were assisting in helping to renovate facilities at the base but that there was no secret agreement for military assets to remain at Ream.

The Wall Street Journal in 2019 reported that China had 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.

Arend Zwartjes, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, declined to comment on the Defense Ministry’s statement.

Mey Dina, a spokesperson and chief of staff at the Ream base, declined to comment as well. He said senior officials would decide whether to approve another visit to the base.

“Please ask higher officials. I don’t have the right [to answer],” Mey Dina said.

Em Sovannara, a political commentator, said Cambodia should show the U.S. that are they trying to ensure trust between the two countries, and clear the accusations about Ream.

“Cambodia should think of any means to clarify and clear out the misunderstanding and gain trust in the countries’ relationship for the nation’s benefit,” Em Sovannara said.