Chinese Warships in Cambodia Fuel Fresh Concerns as Wang Visits

(Bloomberg) -- China’s top diplomat has pledged to further boost security ties with Cambodia during a visit amid US concerns over the extended presence of its warships at a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand.

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China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Sunday for a three-day visit after meeting Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta days earlier. He told his Cambodian counterpart the two sides should boost cooperation and to “strengthen solidarity and cooperation, and tighten the security line for the construction of a China-Cambodia community with a shared future,” according to an official readout.

The meeting comes days after the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative published a report showing satellite photos of two Chinese navy ships that appear to have spent four months at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. China has helped fund reconstruction at Ream, while the US has said a military facility there would be China’s first overseas base in the Indo-Pacific, something Phnom Penh has repeatedly denied.

This extended and exclusive access raises “the question of whether that presence has now, in fact, been established,” the April 18 report said.

AMTI is “hyping up maritime issues, attacking and smearing China,” its foreign ministry said in written response to Bloomberg News. It described the cooperation with Phnom Penh as “transparent,” adding that Beijing’s assistance in the naval base is “conducive to enhance Cambodia’s capability of safeguarding its own independence and national sovereignty.”

Prime Minister Hun Manet has further deepened ties with Beijing since taking the reins from his father last year. Cambodia’s relationship with the US remains rocky, with considerable strain over a range of issues including human rights, press freedom and the suppression of political opposition.

Earlier this month, the US urged greater transparency from Cambodia over a planned $1.7 billion canal that observers say could be used to bolster China’s military presence, posing a potential security threat to regional neighbors like Vietnam. The US has similar concerns over China’s activities at Ream.

Read: US Urges Transparency Over China-Backed Canal in Cambodia

“The United States and countries in the region have consistently expressed serious concern about the intent, nature, and scope of construction at Ream Naval Base, as well as the role the PRC military is playing in this process and in future use of the facility,” the US Embassy in Cambodia wrote Saturday in response to questions from Bloomberg.

“The Cambodian people, neighboring countries, Asean, and the region more broadly would benefit from transparency on PRC activities at Ream.”

--With assistance from Jing Li.

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