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Cambodia hits back at Chinese base claims

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SINGAPORE — Cambodia has denied reports that the country is giving China “exclusive” access to a naval base undergoing construction along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore over the weekend, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh reminded the audience that the presence of foreign military bases on his country’s soil is in violation of the constitution.

During a Q&A session after his speech, Tea clarified that the naval base at Ream “is being modernized and upgraded in accordance with Cambodian requirements, and that there will be no exclusive rights for its use.”

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that China will have exclusive use of some parts of the base, which is undergoing extensive construction believed to have been funded in part by China.

Tea called such reports “insulting” to the Cambodian government, saying the country possesses sole authority of the naval base.

The naval base at Ream was initially a modest facility built with U.S. assistance, but it was demolished in 2020 before the ongoing construction began.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer Blake Herzinger noted details that emerged during the June 8 groundbreaking ceremony at the base suggested the result would be modest.

Herzinger wrote that the area identified by The Washington Post as being partitioned off for China’s use is “miniscule,” measuring a purported 0.3 square kilometers (0.12 square miles), and that there “is little reason to assume that Cambodian leaders would agree to Ream Naval Base being used for Chinese power projection in Southeast Asia or combat operations in the region.”

Upgrading capabilities

During a plenary session on military modernization and defense capabilities, the minister also said technological advances will potentially drive an increase in defense spending and modernization efforts. The improvement of defense capabilities is a requirement for every nation as they adapt to the national, regional and global security environment, he added.

He also said Cambodia will continue with plans to modernize its armed forces, confirming the Royal Cambodian Army recently received “a series of heavy and modern weapons.”

He did not provide more details, although photos posted on social media show mobile artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems of Chinese origin at what is believed to be the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. These included the AR2 long-range and Type 90B multiple rocket launcher systems as well as the 155mm SH-1 self-propelled howitzer along with support vehicles. It’s unclear how many of each system Cambodia ordered.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.

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