US monitoring reports of Chinese warships at Cambodian base

Sailors stand guard near patrol boats at the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia in this file photo from July 26, 2019. - Reuters

WASHINGTON: The United States is monitoring reports of Chinese warships docking in Cambodia and has serious concerns about Beijing's plans to have exclusive control over parts of the main naval base there, a State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday (Dec 6).

Radio Free Asia reported on Tuesday that Chinese warships had arrived at Cambodia's Ream Naval Base and cited Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Seiha as saying in a Facebook post on Sunday that this was "in preparation for training" of the Cambodian Navy.

RFA said the warship visit coincided with meetings in Phnom Penh on Monday between Cambodia's leaders and He Weidong, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, Beijing's top military command body.

A US State Department spokesperson said Washington was monitoring the reports and added, referring to the People's Republic of China: "While we have no comment on this specific development, we have serious concerns about the PRC's plans for exclusive control over portions of Ream Naval Base."

The US was urging Cambodia to ensure China would not be allowed "presence or sensitive technology" at Ream that would "undermine Cambodia's sovereignty, contravene its constitution, and affect regional stability," the official said.

In military jargon "presence or sensitive technology" generally refers to radar or other surveillance capabilities.

RFA said it was unclear how many Chinese warships docked at Ream, but that images on Tea Seiha's Facebook page appeared to show at least two. It said satellite images from Dec 3 also showed two vessels, likely corvettes or frigates, at a new pier there.

China's Washington embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cambodia's decision to allow China to develop Ream has upset Washington and neighbours worried it will give Beijing a new outpost near the contested South China Sea.

The Pentagon believes the base expansion plans include exclusive use of its northern portion for China's military and says neither country has shared full details about the extent of the plans. Washington says this shows a lack of transparency.

South China Sea expert Gregory Poling at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies said the main concern for the US and its partners would be any radar equipment China might install at Ream.

"The naval aspects of the base aren't particularly worrying for the US - they don't get Chinese ships any closer to the Strait of Malacca, for instance, than China's bases in the Spratlys already do," he said.

"They should concern Thailand and Vietnam a bit, but the real question will be what capabilities get built on the northern half of the base that is set aside for China's exclusive use. Sensing capabilities there, for instance, would considerably extend China's ability to surveil the Gulf of Thailand and eastern Indian Ocean."

Cambodia has dismissed fears that it would allow a Chinese military base on its soil, saying any country could use the Ream facilities, while it was open to accepting military assistance from anyone.

In 2020, Cambodia said it had razed a US-funded facility at Ream to allow expansion there. - Reuters

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Cambodia , Ream , China , naval , base


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