Tue, 27 Oct 2020

Phnom Penh [Cambodia], October 4 (ANI): Preparations for a China-backed expansion at Cambodia Ream Naval Base are underway which the US fears would be transformed into hosting Chinese military assets.

Nikkei Asia, quoting a Cambodian Navy official, reported that the Chinese government was "supporting a project" to expand the port and develop a ship repair facility at the base on the Gulf of Thailand.

According to a study published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, based on satellite image collected on October 1, the Cambodian government has demolished a U.S.-built facility at the country's Ream Naval Base.

"The demolition occurred sometime after September 5 -- likely around September 10-- though imagery of sufficient resolution to confirm was not available at that time. The building was one of several U.S.-funded facilities on the base which were reportedly to be relocated after Cambodia struck a secret deal to grant China access to Ream," reported the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. The AMTI, designed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a source for information, analysis and policy exchange on maritime security issues in Asia.

It added, "The recent demolition seems to confirm that changes are underway at the naval base and again raises questions about rumoured Chinese access.""The report cited unnamed U.S. officials who had seen an early draft of the agreement. It reportedly allowed access for Chinese troops, weapons, and ships for 30 years with an automatic renewal every 10 years thereafter," the CSIS reported further.

Citing The Wall Street Journal, in July 2019, Cambodia and China had "signed a secret agreement" it claimed that the base gives Beijing access to Ream in return for the construction of new infrastructure.

Nikkei Asia, quoting Vann Bunlieng, a three-star vice-admiral, deputy commander and chief of the navy general staff said that the plans include " include dredging work to deepen the waters surrounding the base, which can currently only accommodate smaller vessels".

"The Chinese government helps us to build a port and repair facility for our ships," Bunlieng said adding that the new facilities will save Cambodia money on ship repair should it acquire larger vessels.

"The building demolished last month was the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security. Officially inaugurated in 2012, it was renovated and built by the United States and equipped by Australia," the CSIS reported further.

It was after the Wall Street Journal piece that the Cambodian officials "denied" the existence of a deal. Prime Minister Hun Sen had reportedly said that it was "the worst-ever made-up news against Cambodia" further citing the constitution of Cambodia "which forbids the hosting of foreign military bases in the country".

The CSIS reported that large tracts of land all around Ream Naval Base have been leased by Chinese companies, some with connections to Beijing, for resort development.

"Satellite imagery shows that the company began reclaiming land about three miles north of the base in February. It has so far created about 100 acres of new landfill for an unknown purpose," the study reported.

It added, "The dredging, which started just four days after that project was announced, is presumably part of the resort development--perhaps the beginning of port infrastructure."According to Nikkei Asia, the expansion project was to expand a "navy military base". It included "adding 5,000 tons of dry dock and 1,500 tons of side-launching mechanical slipway".

"The work would also outfit the quay, build a repair workshop and add 7.4 hectares of reclaimed land. The current status of that agreement is unclear," it reported further.

The land reclamation work which covers close to 40 hectares of Ream Bay "has been contracted to" China Harbour -- a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company, which was sanctioned by the US for building islands in the South China Sea.

John Blaxland, Professor for International Security and Intel Studies, said that there was a suspected deal between Beijing and Phnom Penh amid the changes underway at the Ream Naval Base.

"Suspected Secret PRC deal with Cambodia as Changes Underway at Cambodia's Ream Naval Base," he tweeted and shared the link of the study.

"The Cambodian government has demolished a U.S.-built facility at Ream Naval Base in a move likely to reignite concerns that Chinese forces will soon gain access to the base," Greg Poling, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia and Director, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative tweeted.

He further wrote, "In response to our recent report, Cambodian Adm. Vann Bunlieng says China is helping "build a port and repair facility for our ships" but denies PLA will get access to Ream. The spin keeps changing." (ANI)

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