US claims China will begin work on controversial Cambodian naval base next year

A senior US general has claimed that Cambodia and China are to build a naval base in the Preah Sihanouk province, according to an article published in the Voice of America.

Brigadier Joel Vowell, a deputy director for strategic planning, told a group of Cambodian journalists that the country would grant China access to the deep coastal waters on the Gulf of Thailand, and that this was a "big concern" for the US.

He said: "We have information that tells us that there will be some development by the People’s Republic of China to facilitate a naval base at Ream."

He added: "That tells me they want to build something there, facilities to wharf, to house and sustain naval projection of combat power from Ream."

The deal, which was first reported last month by the Wall Street Journal, will allow China to expand the existing base and use it for 30 years.

The Cambodian government has denied making any such arrangement with China. Prime Minister Hun Sen said the Southeast Asian nation’s constitution prevented it from hosting foreign militaries. Chinese officials also dismissed the reports.

However Vowell said: "Ask them to take you on that tour in May of next year, and see what’s been built. I’m almost positive it won’t have a Cambodian or US flag on it. It’ll have a Chinese flag."

Cambodia recently turned down a US offer to conduct repairs on Ream Naval Base, sparking suspicion that an agreement with China might be in the offing. The base has previously supported joint US-Cambodia naval exercises.

World Politics Review comments that a development at Ream would "fit a pattern previously seen in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar, in which Chinese state-owned enterprises build dual-use facilities capable of supporting military operations".

China presently maintains one external naval base at Djibouti, which supports its anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

Pentagon officials in Washington declined to comment on Vowell’s remarks.

Image: US admiral Tom Carney reviews naval officers at Ream in 2012 (US Navy)

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