China, Cambodia break ground on port, dismiss US concerns

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Chinese and Cambodian officials inaugurated a controversial naval port expansion project on Wednesday, dismissing U.S. concerns that it could provide Beijing with a strategically important military outpost in the Gulf of Thailand.

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh, Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian and other officials donned white gloves before returning shovels full of dirt to kick off the official “modernization” of Ream Naval Base, which will include a drydock for ship repairs, a jetty extension, a hospital, a workshop and a “reception building”.

In 2019, longtime authoritarian leader Hun Sen reportedly granted China the right to establish a military base in Ream, but has long denied it, saying Cambodia’s constitution prohibits foreign military installations.

Dredging is already underway to allow larger vessels to use the port. Tea Banh told his guests, including the US defense attaché, that he would still only be able to accommodate ships with a displacement of up to 5,000 tons – an improvement over the current 1,000 tons but too much. shallow for all but the smallest warships.

“Please don’t worry too much about this Ream base,” Tea Banh said, speaking in front of a sign proclaiming that the project is funded by “aid from the People’s Republic of China.”

“This port is too small and even after upgrading it cannot be a port that would threaten any country,” he said.

Tea Banh said he had invited the United States and other foreign representatives to the base so they could see for themselves “there is nothing here”, although he added that once construction is complete, the facility will become a restricted military zone with no access for foreign nations.

After the ceremony, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh reiterated U.S. concerns that a “Chinese military presence in Ream could threaten Cambodia’s autonomy and undermine regional security.”

“The United States and countries in the region have expressed concern about the lack of transparency about the intent, nature, and scope of this project as well as the role the PRC military is playing in its construction and in post-construction use of the facility,” Embassy spokeswoman Stephanie Arzate said in an email to The Associated Press.

Ream faces the Gulf of Thailand, adjacent to the South China Sea, where China has aggressively asserted its claim to nearly the entire strategic waterway. The United States has refused to acknowledge China’s sweeping claim and regularly conducts military maneuvers there to reinforce that these are international waters.

Tea Banh said the port project is expected to take two years. He did not say how much it would cost, but China has given Cambodia hundreds of millions of dollars in grants in recent years for infrastructure projects.

Chinese Ambassador Wang said the construction will follow a plan agreed by Hun Sen and Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this year to “further promote the construction of a community with a shared future with strategic significance.”

“China and Cambodia have become rock-solid brothers, sparing in words but generous in deeds, treating each other with all sincerity and standing side by side in difficult times,” he said, according to a translation. in English of his remarks provided by the Chinese delegation.

In November, the United States sanctioned two senior Cambodian defense officials over allegations of corruption related to financing the construction of the Ream base, and Wang denounced the decision, without mentioning the United States by name.

“Some countries continue to smear the legitimate exchanges and cooperation between China and Cambodia and arbitrarily impose unilateral sanctions on Cambodia under the false subterfuge of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, interfering in ways flagrant in Cambodia’s internal affairs through ‘long-arm jurisdiction’,” he said. said. “We strongly oppose all these abuses.”

He said that once completed, the base will be a monument to “the friendship and unfailing cooperation between the two armies” of China and Cambodia.

China operates only one recognized foreign military base, in Djibouti, an impoverished but strategically important country in the Horn of Africa, but many believe its People’s Liberation Army is establishing a military network there. stranger, even if she does not use the term “base”. ”

Beijing recently signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands that raised fears of a possible Chinese outpost in the Pacific, and it has reached out to several other island nations in the region.

The United States has more foreign military bases than any other country, including multiple facilities in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Rising reported from Bangkok.

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