The U.S. government on Monday called for full transparency from Cambodia about Beijing-backed refurbishments at its Ream Naval Base following confirmation by Phnom Penh of sand dredging activities at the site.
In an emailed statement, Chad Roedemeier, the spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, told RFAâ€™s Khmer Service that Washington is aware of independent reporting that China is engaged in â€œa significant, ongoing construction project at Ream Naval Base,â€ located outside Cambodiaâ€™s main port city of Sihanoukville.
â€œWe encourage Cambodian authorities to be fully transparent about the intent, nature and scope of this project â€” and the role the [Chinese] military is playing, which raises concerns about the intended use of the naval facility,â€ Roedemeier said.
The embassy statement came a day after a Cambodian Defense Ministry official confirmed sand dredging activity at the base to increase depth to 5-6 meters (16-20 feet) from 2 meters (7 feet).
â€œYes, in fact there is sand dredging activities â€” it appears they are creating a pass [for ships to dredge],â€ the head of the Ream Naval Base Modernization Project, Gen. Chao Phirun, told RFA of the Chinese activities at the base on Sunday.
â€œIt is the Ministry of National Defense that sent people to help pump and dredge the sediment to make way for access, but the area is very shallow, and the ships might not make it. If [we] want to dredge, weâ€™ll have to spend a lot of money because the water is only 2 meters deep.â€
Chao Phirun â€” one of two senior Cambodian military officials sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury and State Departments in November for conspiring to illicitly profit from the project at Ream â€” said it is unclear when the pumping will be completed because only one dredging barge is operating at the site. He acknowledged that workers and technical staff from China are working at the base but said no military personnel had been sent by Beijing.
Chao Phirun spoke to RFA in response to a Jan. 21 report by the influential U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studiesâ€™ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which cited satellite imagery as showing two large dredging barges in operation at the Ream Naval Base.
U.S. officials have voiced alarm for more than two years over the China-backed refurbishment of Ream Naval Base, following a 2019Â Wall Street Journal report on a secret treaty granting the Chinese navy use of the base for 30 years. The claim was quickly denounced by the Cambodian government as â€œfake news,â€ but suspicions remain.
During a June visit to Cambodia, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned her hosts that a Chinese base in Cambodia would negatively impact relations with the United States.
The November sanctions against Chao Phirun and Ministry of Defense Tea Vinh were announced in conjunction with a Commerce Department advisory warning U.S. businesses of the â€œpotential exposure to entities in Cambodia, such as the Cambodian military, that engage in human rights abuses, corruption, and other destabilizing conduct.â€
The arms embargo covers not just conventional weaponry, but also so-called â€œdual-useâ€ equipment, which are items that could have both commercial and military or national security applications.
Speaking to RFA on Monday, Chao Phirun called claims about refurbishments at the Ream Naval Base â€œaccusations,â€ and denied that China would use the site in the future.
â€œThere are no Chinese military officials, only technicians and engineers. They came to help â€¦ study, survey, determine which plan to follow, because we donâ€™t have many naval experts,â€ he said.
â€œIt isnâ€™t a military force, it’s a labor force. They are workers from a company that was successfully tendered by the Chinese Ministry of Defense. At the end of their jobs, they will go back home. They come in groups of 10 to 20 people. [But] there are no troops camping there.â€
When the project is completed, he said, the Cambodian navy will be able to use the site to repair its small ships, which previously required towing to neighboring countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.
He said that the Chinese military is not welcome to use Ream Naval Base because doing so would violate Cambodiaâ€™s constitution but added that Cambodia is entitled to receive training and military assistance from abroad as it sees fit.
Reported by RFAâ€™s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.