“We relocated the facility to a new spot. We cannot keep it anymore and the building is already old,” he said.
But Sophal Ear, a Cambodian-American associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the demolition suggested “full steam ahead with plans [to] transform the base into the second naval facility outside of China and Djibouti [Africa], where the Chinese will have a foothold”.
“The Prime Minister of Cambodia [Hun Sen] keeps saying ‘nothing to see here’ and maintains this [a Chinese base] would be against the Cambodian Constitution. There are many, many things happening in Cambodia that are unconstitutional.”
In July last year, Cambodia signed a secret deal that would allow China to use the base, which sits near the coastal city of Sihanoukville, to station troops, store weapons and berth ships.
Hun Sen denied the report but there is growing concern about China’s presence in and around the base, which The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age investigated in August 2019 and in Sihanoukville, which has seen huge amounts of Chinese business investment.
Australian security analysts John Blaxland and Euan Graham have warned that a Chinese presence at Ream would allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy to operate near Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, and that it would strengthen China’s strategic position with regard to the contested South China Sea.
Since the end of the Cambodian civil war and Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, the south-east Asian nation has slowly shifted out of the sphere of influence of the US, European Union and Australia.
Hun Sen has become an increasingly authoritarian ruler over his 35 years in power, arresting and jailing prominent members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, some of whom are now in exile, cracking down on free speech and winning all 125 seats in a sham election in July 2018.
Ear said that “despite repeated denials, Phnom Penh [Cambodia’s capital and a metonym for the national government] is doing everything that the US predicted it would, despite denying it each step of the way”.
The demolition of the building was another indication that “Phnom Penh is handing the base over to China, whether officially or unofficially, it doesn’t matter. The Chinese troops could be all Cambodian passport holders […] but they will answer to Beijing, not Phnom Penh”.
Monovithya Kem, a senior CNRP figure living in exile said the Cambodian regime had taken drastic measures on domestic issues that blatantly violate our Constitution”. She is daughter of former CNRP leader Kem Sokha who was jailed by Hun Sen, then placed under house arrest, then banned from political activities.
“It’s not unimaginable they would have no reservation in violating our constitution on the issue of a foreign military base.”
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.