Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has banned U.S. visits to the Ream Naval Base, after Washington imposed sanctions on senior military officials for alleged corrupt practices involving Chinese companies.
The ban is the latest salvo in a growing diplomatic row over the base, its use, and plans by the Chinese military to develop the port. According to a recent survey by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, new buildings and a road are already under construction.
Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department against two senior Cambodian defense officials, saying they inflated construction costs at the naval base in 2020 and 2021 and then planned to use those funds for their own benefit.
The sanctions froze U.S. assets held by the pair and effectively bar Americans from any dealings with them. The State Department also barred both men and some of their families from traveling to the U.S.
“Ream Naval Base is not a place for thieves or robbers,” Hun Sen said in . “You can say whatever you want. I allowed you to visit, not to investigate or inspect.
“Differentiate the meaning of visiting and inspection. You should understand your duties. Your action violates Cambodian sovereignty and international law,” he added, in no uncertain terms.
The sticking point, this time around, according to the government-friendly Fresh News, was a recent visit by a U.S. military attaché to Ream.
Afterwards, however, Cambodia not allowing the attaché to enter all areas inside the base. As a result Hun Sen said he would “stop accepting requests to visit Ream Naval Base.”
Defense Minister Tea Banh also chipped-in, admitting that Cambodia was receiving aid from China to modernize Ream Naval Base but insisted his country would not hand over exclusive rights to China to operate the base, as alleged by the U.S. government.
Citing the constitution, he added “Cambodia, time and again, has clarified that the Kingdom will not allow any countries to set-up a military base on her territory.” The constitution only allows foreign military bases inside Cambodia within the framework of a United Nations’ request.
Ream is strategically placed on Cambodia’s southeast coast near the Vietnam border. At the other end of its 435 kilometer seaboard sits Dara Sakor – a $3.8 billion Chinese property development, nestled not far from the Thai border, which has also raised suspicions in Washington.
In September last year, the U.S. on the Union Development Group (UDG), which is developing Dara Sakor, the first against a Chinese company in Cambodia, over the seizure of land and treatment of locals at the site.
Treasury said UDG had prevented villagers from planting rice while the state-owned company was also accused of burning down homes and using private security and the Cambodian military to seize land.
Other sanctions through the Cambodian Democracy Act are currently before Congress, mainly in regards to human rights, are also possible amid frosty ties between Washington and Phnom Penh, exacerbated by Cambodia’s swing into China’s orbit over the last 10 years.
That plus Beijing’s claims in the disputed and international waters of the South China Seas, the re-emergence of the Quad and the AUKUS security partnership has intensified Washington’s focus on the naval base.
American attitudes were perhaps best summed up by Chad Roedemeier, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Phnom Penh, the embassy is “aware of consistent, credible reporting that significant construction by the People’s Republic of China continues at Ream Naval Base.”
He also said the Cambodian government had not been fully transparent about the intent, nature, and scope of this project or the role of the Chinese military, which did raise concerns about the potential use of the Ream naval facility.
It’s a subject the Cambodian leadership – which relies heavily on Beijing’s largess to underpin its economy – finds deeply irritating, but given the shifting political dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, the Ream Naval Base promises to remain a contentious issue going forward.
Luke Hunt can be followed on and .