The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said a defense attaché was not granted “full access” to Ream Naval Base during a much-hyped visit on Friday, after a senior U.S. State Department official questioned the alleged presence of Chinese military personnel at the base.
U.S. defence attaché Marcus Ferrara visited the base in Preah Sihanouk province on Friday, but Cambodia military officials denied the official full access to the base, at which point Ferrara decided to end the visit, according to an embassy statement.
“When it became clear he would not be granted adequate access, Colonel Ferrara ended the tour and requested Cambodian military officials reschedule the visit with full access at the earliest opportunity,” the statement reads.
The statement added that frequent and routine trips to Ream Naval Base would ensure “transparency and mutual trust.”
Ream base has been focal to U.S. and Cambodia relations in the last couple of years, after the Wall Street Journal published a story in 2019 alleging the existence of secret agreement with China to house Chinese military personnel at the coastal base.
The demolition of naval facilities built with U.S. assistance has also irked Washington, even as Cambodia has maintained that it is not favoring any one country.
U.S. deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman visited the country last week and questioned Prime Minister Hun Sen about the presence of Chinese military officials at Ream, after which the defense attaché’s visit was scheduled.
Defense Minister Tea Banh told local media that China was assisting in building new infrastructure at the base, but there was no contract to allow the Chinese personnel to remain at the base.
The U.S. Embassy did not comment further on the attaché’s visit on Friday, and Defense Minister Tea Banh and Mey Dina, spokesperson for the Ream base, could not be reached. Nem Sowath, director of the Defense Ministry’s foreign affairs department, said he was busy in a meeting.
Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan said the agreement was to allow the U.S. defense attaché access to the construction site of a new port but that the official wanted to go in the “wrong direction.”
“When they want to go to other places, it impacts the national security and sovereignty of our defenses, and even the U.S. has never allowed any foreign [government] to check their bases,” he said.
He said the U.S. can clearly state its intentions to visit certain parts of the base, as there needs to be prior notification.