A day after Cambodia confirmed the razing of a second U.S.-built facility at the Ream Naval Base, a senior U.S. State Department official said Washington would continue to support the development of the naval base.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh confirmed on Tuesday a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that a boat maintenance facility built by the United States in 2017 was deconstructed in early November.
In light of the U.S.-built facility being pulled down, U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Atul Keshap repeated Washington’s apprehension that the demolition, in addition to a similar incident in September, was to facilitate a Chinese military presence at Ream Naval Base.
“We are concerned that razing the facility may be tied to plans for hosting [People’s Republic of China] military assets and personnel at Ream,” Keshap told an online conference organized by CSIS on Tuesday.
“A permanent PRC military presence in Cambodia would be disruptive and destabilizing to the Indo-Pacific region and could undermine the freedom of navigation and overflight,” he said.
He did not elaborate.
In September, CSIS released similar satellite imagery that showed a U.S.-built structure at the tactical command headquarters of the Cambodian National Committee for Maritime Security had been demolished, sparking concerns that Cambodia was acting on a deal to allow China access to the base.
Keshap also repeated on Tuesday a statement made by U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier in early October, after the first facility was razed at the base.
“We would welcome a dialogue about Cambodia’s needs, and to identify how we can support infrastructure at Ream that would benefit an independent Cambodia and all nations supportive of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Keshap said at the CSIS event.
The Cambodian government has denied accusations by the U.S. that the Chinese military was seeking to establish a base in Cambodia, an accusation reported in the Wall Street Journal in 2019, where the publication said a secret agreement had been signed to allow China 30-year access to Ream Naval Base.
Ream Naval Base’s Deputy Commander Rear Admiral Mey Dina said he welcomed U.S. support for the base, but it would be up to senior naval and defense officials in Phnom Penh to decide on the nature of this assistance.
“But it’s not up to me at this level to decide whether to accept and communicate directly [on the matter of assistance]. It would be the top brass, generally speaking, including the Defense Ministry and naval command that decides this,” Mey Dina said.
Cambodian Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Vann Bunleang told Nikkei Asian Review in October that China would fund the development of Ream Naval Base, including the construction of a vessel repair house and the dredging of the bay facing the base.
When asked about Chinese aid to build facilities at the base, Rear Admiral Mey Dina said: “On that I am not sure, but there may be [support].”
“I dare not confirm [any information] that in my capacity I cannot confirm because we do not have anything that is certain.”
Defense Minister Tea Banh and ministry spokesperson Chhum Socheat did not respond to requests for comment. The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh also did not respond to requests for comment.
Collin Koh, a maritime security expert with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the U.S. is likely to maintain cooperation at the Ream Naval Base because it was wary of China’s ambitions in the region.
“Ream, by dint of its geostrategic location, would usefully facilitate U.S. presence in the region, especially mainland Southeast Asia that has traditionally – with possible exception of Vietnam – been within China’s sphere of influence,” Koh said in an email.
The U.S. desire to maintain a “limited presence” at Ream by supporting facilities at the base, Koh added, was more a strategic move to offset China. He also pointed to potential Chinese funding of the Kra Isthmus or Southern Land Bridge, which would connect the Gulf of Thailand to Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean.
“Even if Thailand eventually doesn’t go ahead with the canal or land bridge project, US presence in Ream would remain a counterbalance to growing Chinese influence in Cambodia, and mainland Southeast Asia at large,” he said.