A United States military envoy in Cambodia visited Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province on Monday, a base that is surrounded in controversy for plans to allegedly install Chinese military and naval assets.
U.S. Defense Attaché Colonel Marcus Ferrara, who is stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, visited Ream Naval Base on January 13 to “pay a courtesy call and have a working discussion” with Royal Cambodian Navy’s Deputy Commander Vice Admiral Ouk Seyha, according to a Facebook page run by the base’s administration.
Reached on Monday, Vice Admiral Ouk Seyha, who also concurrently commands the base, only confirmed that he met with Colonel Marcus Ferrara, declining to comment further.
The U.S. has consistently raised concerns over the possible stationing of Chinese military and naval assets at Ream, following a news report from the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese and Cambodian governments had reached a “secret deal” to give the former access to the base.
This was further confirmed by Brigadier General Joel B. Vowell, Deputy Director for Strategic Planning and Policy of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, in an interview last August, where he said the two countries were moving ahead with this plan.
Back at Ream, it was unclear what parts of the base the U.S. defense envoy had visited on Monday or whether the issue of alleged Chinese military access was raised during the meeting.
“The U.S. Embassy Defense Attaché meets with many Cambodian military officials in the course of his regular duties, and the meeting with Ouk Seyha was a routine meeting,” embassy spokesperson Emily V. Zeeberg said in an email, providing no further detail of the meeting.
As the U.S. and Cambodia have seen their relations fray over domestic allegations the former interfered in politics, assisted in an alleged “color revolution” and over China’s potential use of the naval base, the two governments have been attempting to ease the tensions recently, especially after the arrival of new U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy.
Paul Chambers, a military expert at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said Colonel Ferrara’s visit to Ream Naval Base could be read as an act of mutual reassurance by both countries with regards to the future of the base.
“His visit could be interpreted as Washington’s attempt to directly ascertain to what extent Cambodia is allowing China to use the base,” Paul Chambers said in an email.
“The implication is that if Cambodia allows access to the base to the US defense attaché, then either Cambodia is beginning to tilt toward Washington or Cambodia urgently wants to prove to Washington that it has not become a proxy of Beijing.”
The Cambodian government has been adamant that the allegations of a Chinese naval base in Ream was incorrect and even invited some 70 journalists to tour the base in a heavily guarded and orchestrated visit.
U.S. suspicions over the Ream Naval Base were first made public after former U.S. Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph H. Felter, who visited the base in early 2019, claimed in June 2019 that Cambodia had made taken back its request for U.S. support to modernize the base.
The senior ex-Pentagon official said in a letter to Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh that “this sudden change of policy could indicate larger plans for changes at Ream Naval Base, particularly ones that involve hosting Chinese military assets.”