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Defense Minister Says Ream Being Made into a Geopolitical Issue by “Them”

FILE - Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh talked to the press about Covid-19 vaccine Sinopharm in Phnom Penh, February 2021. (Hean Socheata/VOA Khmer)

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh said redevelopment plans for Ream Naval Base was being turned into a geopolitical issue – in a thinly veiled reference to the United States – as the minister continues to clarify Cambodia’s position on whether China will have a military presence at the base.

Tea Banh was speaking at an event in Phnom Penh and, without mentioning the U.S. directly, said “they” would not accept his explanations about plans for the base. While the U.S. has alleged that China has signed a secret deal to have military personnel stationed at the base, Cambodia denies this claim by pointing to sovereignty clauses in the Cambodian Constitution.

“If they don’t get what they want, they will not accept the explanation,” he said, at an event to commemorate Cambodia’s “first drops” of crude oil at the Win-Win Monument in Phnom Penh.

“I don’t need to explain more. Journalists can analyze geopolitics.”

The minister also rejected claims that Cambodia was now “pro-China.”

“But we have our neutrality policy. We work with all friends who want to be friends with us,” Tea Banh said.

While the issue has attracted media coverage since the Wall Street Journal in 2019 confirmed the existence of an alleged deal between China and Cambodia, it took center stage last week when U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman directly asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to explain why Chinese military personnel were currently at Ream Naval Base.

Sherman was in the country on a short visit, with Ream being top of the agenda at her meeting with Hun Sen. She also met with civil society groups and opposition leader Kem Sokha, and pushed the government to reverse the country’s democratic backslide.

At the Win-Win Monument, Tea Banh said that Sherman’s comments on Ream were completely wrong, and that a U.S. military official was allowed to visit the base to assuage any concerns.

Shortly after Sherman’s visit, Tea Banh confirmed to a local media outlet that China was assisting in building infrastructure at the base but again there was no plan to allow Chinese military personnel to remain at Ream.

FILE - A vista over Cambodia’s Ream Naval base in Preah Sihanouk province, Friday, July 26, 2019. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)
FILE - A vista over Cambodia’s Ream Naval base in Preah Sihanouk province, Friday, July 26, 2019. (Sophat Soeung/VOA Khmer)

U.S. Embassy Spokesperson Chad Roedemeier on Wednesday reiterated Sherman’s call for Cambodia to maintain a “balanced foreign policy.”

“U.S. Deputy Secretary Sherman expressed serious concerns about the PRC’s military presence and construction of facilities at Ream, which the Defense Minister has confirmed publicly,” Roedemeier said.

“The Deputy urged Cambodia’s leadership to maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy, in the best interests of the Cambodian people.”

Em Sovannara, a political commentator, said the U.S. was probably not getting the answers they wanted to hear from Cambodia, which could lead to repercussions.

“If there is no response to U.S. worries, I think the U.S. will take some action or other steps,” the commentator said.

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the bonhomie between Cambodia and China was no secret, and claims of neutrality were moot.

“It's not that complicated. Just look at Phnom Penh's actions. Don't listen to Phnom Penh's words,” Sophal Ear said.