Vietnam speaks out about China’s support for Cambodia to upgrade Ream’s military port

Cambodian Navy at Ream naval base, Preah Sihanouk province during a visit of journalists organized by the government on July 26, 2019

Regarding information that China has helped Cambodia upgrade Ream naval base, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said that Hanoi has evidence that Beijing is participating in a large-scale reclamation project at Ream naval base in Cambodia.

Vietnam’s state-controlled state media quoted Ms. Le Thi Thu Hang as saying “Credible reports show that the reclamation project covers an area completely under Chinese control.”

Hang also said, “Vietnam is a good neighbor, has a traditional friendship with both China and Cambodia, and hopes that the relationship between China and Cambodia makes a positive contribution to peace and harmony, security, stability, and prosperity of the region and the world.”

Meanwhile, regarding the tense situation in the East Sea (South China Sea) due to China’s long-standing encroachment and expansionist actions, the representatives of Japan and Australia have just made the latest statement.

On the evening of June 9, after the ninth dialogue between foreign and defense ministers, Japan and Australia issued a joint statement reiterating their “deep concerns over the situation in the South China Sea and reaffirming the strong opposition of Tokyo and Canberra to unilateral efforts to change the status quo.” Both Japan and Australia also objected to China’s maritime claims and activities that were inconsistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982).

Is Cambodia hiding something else?

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at a meeting in Phnom Penh on June 1, 2021

The visit of the US Assistant Secretary of State

The recent visit to Southeast Asia of the US Assistant Secretary of State – Ms. Wendy R. Sherman, has just ended. This is the first trip to Southeast Asia by a senior US official since Biden took office in January 2021. In Southeast Asia, Sherman “reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to ASEAN’s centrality and handling of a range of bilateral and regional issues…”.

According to Sebastián Strangio, a journalist and also an expert on Southeast Asia, the choice of Thailand and Indonesia on this trip is not surprising when Bangkok is a treaty alliance of Washington while Jakarta plays a central role in Southeast Asia. Both Thailand and Indonesia are in a special situation regarding the political crisis in Myanmar. Bangkok is Myanmar’s immediate neighbor and has close ties to Myanmar’s military elite, while Jakarta has long played a leading role in efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Myanmar.

However, the visit of this American diplomat has another stop in Phnom Penh, which attracts a lot of attention from researchers. Many Western researchers have accused Cambodia of becoming more and more dependent on China. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also did not hide his “warm” relationship with China during the past time. China is America’s biggest and most worrisome rival right now.

In contrast, the US-Cambodia relationship in the past time has been “frozen.” The US has sanctioned some Cambodian officials and expressed concern about Cambodia demolishing an old US base and potentially turning it into a secret military base for China.

In addition, an important factor for the United States is Cambodia’s assumption of the rotating ASEAN Chair in 2022. Phnom Penh will therefore play an essential role in any plans to increase American engagement in ASEAN.

With the triangle of Cambodia-China-US relations, along with the current US policy towards Southeast Asia, the biggest purpose of Ms. Sherman’s visit is to counter China’s increasing influence in this region, Strangio said. China’s rapid growth. Regional media reported that Ms. Sherman held talks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn. Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Spokesman Koy Kuong did not disclose details of the talks, only saying that the talks covered bilateral issues, and affirmed that “Cambodia relations -America is good and nothing has changed.”

China’s military base in Cambodia?

However, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman continued to express concern about China’s military presence in Cambodia and wanted the Phnom Penh government to explain the demolition of US-funded military facilities in Cambodia. As the highest-ranking US official to visit Cambodia in many years, Ms. Sherman expressed concern and made the above suggestion during a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 1. The US State Department released a statement saying: “Assistant Secretary Sherman expressed serious concern about China’s military presence and construction of facilities at Ream Naval Base. Sherman sought to explain the demolition of two US-funded buildings at Ream base without giving any notice or explanation, and realized that a Chinese military base in Cambodia would weaken the rights of Cambodia, threaten regional security and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations.” Also at the meeting, Sherman urged the Cambodian leadership to “maintain a balanced and independent foreign policy, in the best interest of the Cambodian people.”

The Pentagon said in 2020 that Washington was concerned about reports that the Cambodian Navy’s tactical command headquarters at Ream Naval Base had been demolished and asked the Cambodian side to explain this incident. The headquarters is only about 30 meters long and houses a number of small patrol boats. By October 2020, Cambodia said it had razed this headquarters to serve the renovation and expansion and would move the demolished headquarters to another location but denied information about China’s involvement. However, the US side said there is “important” public evidence that China is carrying out a major reclamation project at Ream. The press also said “credible reports” said the project would include an area under Beijing’s special control.

On June 2, Cambodian media reported that the country’s Defense Minister Tea Banh confirmed that China was “voluntarily” helping to modernize and expand the Ream base – Cambodia’s largest naval base. Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh further affirmed that China supports Cambodia to upgrade Ream military port without any binding conditions.

Bad news” for Vietnam

The fact that Cambodian officials officially acknowledge China’s help with the construction of the Ream base, despite last year’s staunch denial of involvement with China shows, it seems that the concerns of the US and some other countries about the presence of China’s presence in Cambodia’s Ream naval base is well-founded. If so, this could be a threat to regional security. This is probably not only “bad news” for the US, but also for Vietnam.

Vietnam was formerly an important neighboring country with great influence on Cambodia. The current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, was previously very close to Vietnam. He is a fluent Vietnamese speaker, and he even wrote a Ph.D. thesis at the National Academy of Politics in the South.

Vietnam also has a land border with Cambodia that is 1,245 km long. So far, the two countries have only completed about 80% of the demarcation. Vietnam wants to complete the demarcation and marker planting soon, but there are many positions that the Cambodian side has not yet agreed to, so the demarcation and marker planting has not been completed as expected after more than half a century. The two sides signed the Agreement on the Vietnam-Cambodia land border on December 27, 1985, and the Additional Treaty on the National Border Planning Treaty signed on October 10, 2005.

Later on, Vietnam’s influence over Cambodia became weaker than China’s. Cambodia has actively participated in the “Belt and Road” project with China, even the Sihanoukville province area has Chinese special zones and many Chinese come here to live. Cambodia is also an active supporter of China in the COC negotiations. In 2012, Cambodia, as the host, prevented the foreign ministers of ASEAN countries from issuing a joint statement that condemned China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea (Vietnam calls it the East Sea). Vietnam is a country seeking to counter China’s illegal actions and claims in the sea. Therefore, the fact that the Cambodian government has inconsistent statements about the construction of the Ream base along with the role of China shows that this is an issue that Vietnam cannot ignore. Because maybe Cambodia hides many other problems.

In the immediate future, Vietnam needs to ask Cambodia to properly explain these questions, because a disguised Chinese military base in the Gulf of Thailand area could pose threats to Vietnam’s security as well as security in the South China Sea region.

In addition, Vietnam needs to consider setting up scenarios to “neutralize” this military base if there is a war in the East Sea. This is the scenario that many researchers around the world have warned about. (Translated)