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Defense Minister Says China Helping with Ream Overhaul, But ‘No Strings Attached’

FILE - A Cambodian navy sailor salutes on a Chinese naval patrol boat during a handover ceremony at a Cambodian naval base at Ream in Sihanoukville province, southwest of Phnom Penh, on November 7, 2007. REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh has confirmed that China was assisting to build infrastructure at the controversial Ream Naval Base, days after a visiting U.S. diplomat raised the issue at a meeting with Hun Sen.

The defense minister was interviewed by government-aligned Fresh News on Wednesday, where he said China was helping build infrastructure at the base in Preah Sihanouk province. He added that Cambodia needed assistance to expand and modernize the base to host large, deep-water vessels.

“We want to develop a suitable place…Cambodia alone can’t do it. It is moderately costly as well, but I don’t know how much,” Tea Banh said. “They [China] are helping with no strings attached.”

The minister said Cambodia had a right to develop for the “nation’s benefit” and rejected the U.S.’ attempts to turn the base into a geopolitical issue.

Fresh News also reported that a U.S. military attaché would visit Ream Naval Base after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman made the request during her visit earlier this week.

Tea Banh could not be reached for comment on Thursday. The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Sherman made a quick trip to Cambodia on Tuesday and met with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. She asked for an explanation as to why Chinese military personnel was present at the base, according to a statement released by the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. has alleged that China will maintain a military presence at Ream Naval Base. 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.

“The Deputy urged Cambodia’s leadership to maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy, in the best interests of the Cambodian people,” a State Department statement, released after Sherman’s visit, reads.

The Cambodian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday that said Hun Sen had clarified Cambodia’s position on Ream Naval Base to Sherman and he reiterated the country’s determination “to maintain and protect its independence, neutrality and sovereignty in both domestic and foreign policy.”

U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier reiterated Sherman’s concern over the issue, and said routine and frequent visits by all foreign military attaches to Ream Naval Base “can contribute to increased transparency.”

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said Cambodia’s admission that China was building its military infrastructure was “what the U.S. has been saying all along.”

“Despite the claim by Minister of Defense Tea Banh that there are no strings attached, I just don't think there's ever such a thing. The more Beijing gives, the more Beijing wants. The more Phnom Penh denies, the more it is true,” he said in an email on Thursday.

In a May 20 speech at an international conference, Hun Sen said the accusation that Cambodia and China had signed a secret deal to allow the latter a military presence at Ream Naval Base was “very unfair for Cambodia” and “unfair for China.”