The launch of the project at the Ream Naval Base, which Cambodian officials said will use a grant from China to renovate the port, It comes amid Western concern that Beijing is seeking a military outpost at a facility in the Gulf of Thailand.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tia Banh denied such allegations, stressing during the ceremony that the project is in line with Cambodia’s constitution, which prohibits the establishment of foreign military bases on its territory, and that the Southeast Asian country is open to development aid from other countries.
“We need to upgrade our base to protect our nation, our land and our sovereignty,” said Te Banh, describing the project as a “modernization” that includes construction and renovation work on a dry dock, wharf and ramp, according to the state-run. Kampuchea Press Agency (AKP).
The development of the base “does not target any third party, and will lead to closer practical cooperation between the two armies,” Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian said at the opening ceremony.
“The military cooperation between China and Cambodia, as a strong pillar of the iron-clad partnership, serves the fundamental interests of our two countries and peoples,” the AKP was quoted as saying.
China’s role in the Ream naval base, which occupies a strategic location near the southern tip of Cambodia near the South China Sea, has drawn scrutiny from Washington in recent years, as it watches for signs that Beijing is expanding its military influence.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reiterated US concerns about the “Chinese military presence and facility building” at the base in a meeting with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon last month, according to the US State Department.
Both Phnom Penh and Beijing — which have boosted economic and diplomatic ties in recent years — have been pushed back hard by these concerns, rejecting this week a report that China is building its own naval facility at the Ream naval base.
The denial came after the Washington Post reported on Monday, citing unnamed Western officials, that China is secretly building a naval facility in the northern part of the base for the exclusive use of its military forces.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called the allegations a “model act of bullying” by the United States.
“The United States has been deaf to Cambodia’s position, repeatedly making malicious speculations, attacking and defaming Cambodia, and even threatening and putting pressure on Cambodia,” Zhao said.
Prak Sokhon also denied the “baseless accusations” in a phone call with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Tuesday, according to the AKP.
He added that the renewal of the base “only serves to strengthen the country’s naval capabilities to protect its maritime safety and combat crimes.”
“We have been aware of Beijing’s activity in Ream for some time, and we encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intentions and ensure that its activities support regional security and stability,” he told reporters, adding that the Cambodian government had “always been.” Canberra emphasized that no foreign military would be granted exclusive access to Ryam.
Currently, the Chinese military has only one overseas base, in Djibouti.
Beijing insists its international partnerships are aimed at common development, but it has also been critical of Washington’s global network of military bases.
An editorial in the nationalist, state-run Global Times said Thursday that “repeated rumors” about a Chinese naval base in Cambodia have been repeatedly debunked.
But, she added, “if one day China, out of the need to protect national interests and assume international responsibilities and obligations, decides to build new external supply bases, it will be on board.”
“The United States has no right to point fingers and interfere in legitimate and mutually beneficial cooperation between other countries,” the editorial said.
Additional reporting by Martin Guilando and Hana Ritchie, CNN Beijing Bureau.
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