By Prak Chan Thul
REAM, Cambodia (Reuters) – Trying to rebut a report of a secret deal to give China access to a naval base, Cambodia’s defence ministry took reporters to see the torpid jetty and outbuildings on Friday.
The United States has also voiced concern that the Ream naval base in southern Cambodia could host forces from China, the closest foreign ally of long-serving authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“You journalists. Open your eyes and noses. Today we show you everything,” said defence ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat. “We can’t hide anything … because there are satellites.”
The Wall Street Journal said on Sunday that China had reached a secret deal with Cambodia this year to let it place forces at Ream. The report cited U.S. and allied officials.
Cambodia denied any such agreement and said hosting foreign forces would be against Cambodia’s constitution.
At Ream, a half dozen grey-painted Cambodian navy patrol boats were moored by the jetty. Sailors in military fatigues stood to attention as the press bus passed. Reporters were not allowed to get off.
The defence ministry pointed out that there was no sign of a Chinese presence or of any construction.
Reporters were also taken to a building where a sign proclaimed: “This building was given by the people of the United State of America an expression of friendship and cooperation.” Inside were U.S.-donated speed boats with guns.
The United States expressed concern to Cambodia over plans for Ream after its offer to pay for renovations at the facility was turned down by the Cambodian government in June.
“This causes us to wonder if the Cambodian leadership’s plans for Ream Naval Base include the possible hosting of foreign military assets and personnel,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg said in a statement.
Chhum Socheat said the building in question would be handed to the Cambodian navy, not to the Chinese.
Giving China access to facilities in Cambodia would boost its ability to assert contested territorial claims in the South China Sea, challenging U.S. allies in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. embassy said it was also monitoring media reports about the potential use of a resort by China.
Some 70 km (40 miles) northwest of Ream, a Chinese company is building a runway at the Dara Sakor resort that is capable of taking some of the world’s biggest planes to serve what for now consists of a rundown casino and a golf course.
China has poured billions of dollars of aid into Cambodia while private Chinese money has gone into real estate developments, factories and casinos.
The town of Sihanoukville, some 10 km (6 miles) from Ream, has been transformed by Chinese investment and the arrival of tens of thousands of Chinese workers and visitors.
(Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Robert Birsel)