Satellite images released last week by a US think tank appeared to show that a US-funded facility at Ream, Cambodia’s largest naval base, had been demolished, said the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Cambodia denied the report, but on Sunday deputy prime minister and defence minister, Tea Banh, confirmed that the facility was torn down last month. “We relocated it to a new spot. We cannot keep it anymore and the building is already old,” he told AFP. “It will be far better in its new location.”
The US is concerned about a growing Chinese military presence in Cambodia, China’s firmest ally in Southeast Asia. The Ream naval base is in a strategic location in the Gulf of Thailand, which gives easy access to the South China Sea.
“We have concerns that razing the facility may be tied to Cambodia government plans for hosting People’s Republic of China military assets and personnel at Ream Naval Base,” the Pentagon said.
Strong-man Premier Hun Sen has repeatedly insisted Cambodia’s constitution forbids any foreign military bases inside its borders. But he has also said money from Beijing will fund the naval base’s development.
One of the world’s longest-serving leaders, Hun Sen has in recent years looked more to Beijing than Washington due to US criticism of his government’s alleged human rights abuses.
However, Hun Sen will not be unaware of a growing anti-China backlash from the public, especially in the Sihanoukville and Kampot areas where businesses and casinos are now largely Chinese-owned, and many more are being constructed by Chinese companies, leading to what many locals are calling “a Chinese invasion”.