A leaked U.S. letter to Defense Minister Tea Banh said speculation was mounting in the U.S. government of Cambodian plans to host Chinese military assets in the country.
In a letter dated June 24 that was circulated among journalists today, Joseph Felter, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, questioned why the Defense Ministry turned down American money to repair buildings at the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province.
Felter had “spent a large amount of political capital” to secure funding in Washington for the repairs, he said in the letter, and was “very surprised” when it was rejected on June 6.
“The notification letter of 6 June 2019 has been seen throughout the U.S. government and is fueling speculation that this sudden change of policy could indicate larger plans for changes at Ream Naval Base, particularly ones that involve hosting Chinese military assets,” Felter said.
In a statement today, Felter urged Cambodian leaders to maintain an independent foreign policy.
“Any steps that weaken Cambodia’s independence or open the door to a foreign military presence in Cambodia would be of serious concern to the United States and could threaten the credibility and centrality of ASEAN,” he said via message.
Navy Commander Tea Vinh told VOD that the Defense Ministry had indeed changed its plans regarding some U.S.-built facilities on the Ream Naval Base, but that he was “not sure” what they were.
“According to the government’s policy, there will be a change to a new place to make the work a bit easier,” Vinh said, explaining that a boat depot and training facility could be moved to a nearby area. “Beyond this, I am not sure.”
Cambodia and the U.S. have repeatedly squared off over accusations that Cambodia is making moves to to allow a Chinese military presence in the country. American Vice President Mike Pence, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and former Ambassador William Heidt have all leveled the allegations at the Cambodian government.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, however, has rejected the claims, noting that the Constitution does not allow for a foreign military base on Cambodian territory.
Nevertheless, in recent years Cambodia has suspended joint military exercises with the U.S. while embarking on joint drills with China instead.
Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the waters of Ream Naval Base would need to be dredged before it could be used by the Chinese military, an activity that would be difficult to mask.
“Phnom Penh can deny all it wants, but this is not the sort of thing that can be hidden when satellite images, signal intelligence, and human intelligence tell a different story,” Ear said.
The circulation of Felter’s letter has also come amid attempts by U.S. officials over the past year to enlist reporters in drawing attention to the issue, including embassy officials distributing satellite images and other documentation to journalists in Phnom Penh and articles later being published citing information from anonymous “diplomatic” sources.
Embassy spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg declined to comment on any embassy strategy regarding possibly disseminating information indirectly and at times anonymously via journalists, though she said she would be happy to speak off the record.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said Cambodia needed to maintain its independence to avoid the tragedies of the past.
“When Cambodia was favored toward China, we experienced the Khmer Rouge regime. When we were favored toward the U.S. in the 60s, we suffered,” Sovannara said.
Updated at 7:30 p.m. with comment from Sophal Ear.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)