PHNOM PENH – US diplomat Wendy Sherman has said Washington has “serious concerns” about China’s “military presence” at an expanding Beijing-backed naval base on the Cambodian coast.
Sherman, the Deputy Secretary of State, made the remarks during a two-hour meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday in Phnom Penh, which she described as “heartfelt” on Twitter.
Senior administration official Joe Biden also called on Cambodia to drop “politically motivated charges against members of the political opposition, journalists and activists,” according to a statement released by the US embassy in the country. .
Sherman is on an 11-day diplomatic tour that includes three stops in Southeast Asia, a scene of heightened US-China tensions. The delegation’s decision to include Cambodia, alongside Indonesia and Thailand, comes as Phnom Penh moves ever closer to Beijing, its main source of aid and investment.
Hun Sen defended his close ties to China last month during a speech at Nikkei’s Future of Asia conference.
A potential flashpoint in the region has been the Ream naval base on the Cambodian coast, where China is supporting an expansion of facilities. In 2019, a senior Pentagon official expressed concern that there might be plans to host Chinese assets at the site – a suggestion that both Cambodian and Chinese leaders have rejected.
Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, released new satellite images showing two new buildings were recently constructed at the site. The upgrades, which will include a newly dredged port and a ship repair facility, have resulted in the removal of two US-funded buildings at the base.
On Tuesday, Sherman “asked for clarification on the demolition of two US-funded buildings in Ream without notification or explanation and observed that a PRC military base in Cambodia would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security and would have a negative impact on US-Cambodian relations, “according to the US statement, which used the acronym of China’s official name.
He added: “The MP urged the leadership of Cambodia to maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy, in the best interest of the Cambodian people.”
Speaking to the Phnom Penh Post this week, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh defended the use of Chinese funds to modernize Ream and reiterated his denials that it would be used as a base for China.
“Why can’t Cambodia ask for help to develop the country?” he said.
Cambodia’s drift into Beijing’s orbit coincided with the deterioration of relations with the United States and the European Union, which condemned Cambodia for human rights violations.
After nearly losing an election in 2013, Hun Sen’s government, in power for more than 30 years, waged a massive campaign against opponents. In 2017, he forcibly dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, and has since prosecuted more than 100 grassroots supporters and activists.
He also brought treason charges against CNRP leader Kem Sokha, linking him to a wacky U.S.-backed plot to topple Hun Sen.
During his visit, Sherman met Sokha as well as civil society groups.
They discussed “issues of shared importance with the United States,” such as “securing a peaceful, prosperous, sovereign and democratic future for Cambodia,” the embassy wrote.
“Deputy Secretary Sherman urged the government to reopen civic and political space ahead of the 2022 municipal and 2023 national elections.”
Last year, Brussels suspended some of the EU’s trade preferences in Cambodia in response to political repression. US lawmakers have also pushed for Cambodia’s trade privileges to be reviewed.
Perhaps revealing, the US statement made explicit reference to what it called “the generous US trade benefits that fueled economic growth in the kingdom.”
In an article published on Tuesday evening, Cambodian state-run media Agence Kampuchea Presse highlighted various topics which it said were covered during the meeting.
He said Sherman had expressed his “satisfaction” with Cambodia for its help in finding the remains of soldiers from the Vietnam War, its cooperation in the fight against terrorism and its hosting of a cruise ship in 2020 which has been denied other ports because of COVID-19 concerns.
The delegations also discussed the renegotiation of Cambodia’s US debt accumulated during the war, as well as investments, according to the AKP.