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Chinese and Cambodian officials broke ground on Wednesday in a controversial naval port expansion project, dismissing US concerns it could provide Beijing with a strategically important military outpost on the Gulf of Thailand.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh, Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian and other officials donned white gloves before turning shovels full of dirt to launch the official “modernization” of the Ream Naval Base, which will include a dry dock for ship repairs, a extensive pier, a hospital, a workshop and a ‘reception building’.
Longtime authoritarian leader Hun Sen reportedly granted China the right to set up a military base in Ream in 2019, but has long denied it because Cambodia’s constitution prohibits foreign military facilities.
Dredging is already underway to allow larger ships to use the port. Tea Banh told guests, including the US Defense Attaché, it could still only accommodate ships with a displacement of up to 5,000 tons — an improvement over the current 1,000 tons, but too shallow for all but the smallest naval vessels.
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“Please don’t worry too much about this Ream base,” Tea Banh said, speaking in front of a sign announcing that the project is being funded by “aid from the People’s Republic of China”.
“This port is too small and even after an upgrade it cannot be a port that threatens a country,” he said.
Tea Banh said he invited the US and other foreign representatives to the base so they could see for themselves “there’s nothing here,” although he added that once construction is complete, the facility will become a restricted military zone with no access. for foreign nations.
After the ceremony, the US embassy in Phnom Penh reiterated US concerns that a Chinese “military presence in Ream could threaten Cambodia’s autonomy and undermine regional security”.
“The US and countries in the region have expressed concern about the lack of transparency about the intent, nature and scope of this project, as well as the role of the PRC military in its construction and use after the construction of the facility,” embassy spokesman Stephanie Arzate said in an email to The Associated Press.
Ream faces the Gulf of Thailand, bordering the South China Sea, where China has aggressively asserted its claim to virtually the entire strategic waterway. The US has refused to recognize China’s sweeping claim and routinely conducts military maneuvers there to confirm that it is international waters.
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Tea Banh said the port project is expected to take two years to complete. He didn’t say how much it would cost, but China has given Cambodia hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for infrastructure projects in recent years.
Chinese Ambassador Wang said the construction will follow a plan agreed earlier this year by Hun Sen and Chinese President Xi Jinping to “further advance the building of a community with a shared future of strategic significance”.
“China and Cambodia have become rock-solid brothers, sparing with words but generous in deeds, treating each other with all sincerity and standing side by side in difficult times,” he said, according to an English translation of his comments from the Chinese delegation.
The US sanctioned two senior Cambodian defense officials in November over charges of corruption related to construction financing at the Ream base, and Wang lashed out at the move, without naming the United States.
“Some countries continue to smear legitimate exchanges and cooperation between China and Cambodia and arbitrarily impose unilateral sanctions on Cambodia under the false excuses of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, blatantly meddling in Cambodia’s internal affairs through ‘ long-arm jurisdiction,” he said. said. “We firmly oppose all this misconduct.”
He said that when completed, the base will be a monument to “the rock-solid friendship and cooperation between the two armies” of China and Cambodia.
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China operates only one recognized foreign military base, in the impoverished but strategically important Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, but many believe the People’s Liberation Army is in the process of establishing an overseas military network, even if it doesn’t use the term “base”. †
Beijing recently signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands, raising fears of a possible Chinese outpost in the Pacific, and has reached out to several other island states in the region.
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The US has more foreign military bases than any other country, including multiple facilities in the Asia-Pacific region.