The U.S. embassy in Cambodia said Friday that its defense attaché was denied complete access during an invited visit to the country’s largest naval base, but a Cambodian official told RFA that Phnom Penh had never agreed to a full tour.
The tour Friday came 10 days after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, during a visit to Cambodia, voiced concern about Chinese military presence and construction of facilities at Ream Naval Base on the site of a U.S.-built structure Phnom Penh razed last year.
According to the embassy’s statement, when Sherman met with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 1, he agreed to allow U.S. Embassy Defense Attaché, Colonel Marcus M. Ferrara to visit the base regularly.
“During the brief visit, Cambodian military officials refused to allow the Defense Attaché full access to the Naval Base,” the embassy said.
“When it became clear he would not be granted adequate access, Colonel Ferrara ended the tour and requested Cambodian military officials reschedule the visit with full access at the earliest opportunity,” it said, adding that regular visits to the base were an important for transparency and mutual trust.
A Cambodian Defense Ministry official told RFA’s Khmer Service in an interview that the ministry was “disappointed” with the embassy’s “inaccurate” statement.
“We allowed the U.S. official to visit a few important places that the U.S. said were suspicious, and they accused Cambodia of wrongdoing there in the past,” said Lt. Gen. Suon Samnang, deputy director of the ministry’s foreign affairs department.
“On the contrary, it is the U.S. that has committed a breach of trust, asking for more than what we agreed upon,” he said. The U.S. first said it wanted to see the locations where Washington had funded buildings on the base, and requested to see other places which Cambodia rejected.
“The other places they wanted to visit… were contrary to what we had originally agreed upon, so Cambodia could not accept the request. It infringes on our sovereignty and our right to protect our military secrecy,” said Suon Samang.
When asked which areas Cambodia denied Ferrara access to, Suon Samang declined to elaborate.
RFA was unable to reach Minister of Defense Tea Banh for comment.
Tea Banh last week told local media that China would be involved in the modernization and expansion of Ream Naval Base, but that other countries would be granted access to inspect it.
In September, Cambodia demolished the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security at Ream Naval Base, which was renovated and built by the U.S., equipped by Australia, and inaugurated in 2012. The U.S. raised questions about China’s role in renovating the base.
Political analyst Em Sovanara told RFA that disagreement between the U.S. and Cambodia over Ream Naval base will affect the two countries’ relationship. He said that the U.S. should request exact locations to inspect ahead of their next visit.
The disagreement over Friday’s visit comes at a time when Washington is trying to limit China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia, especially in the South China Sea.
Vietnam Thursday said it was aware that China was helping Cambodia upgrade Ream.
“Vietnam is a good, friendly and traditional neighbor of both China and Cambodia, and we want Sino-Cambodian relations to positively contribute to the peace, security, stability and prosperity of the whole region and the world,” Le Thi Thu Hang, Hanoi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, told state media.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer and Vietnamese Services. Translated by Samean Yun and Anny Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.