PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia's government denied that its demolition of a U.S.-funded facility at one of its naval bases is a signal that China will be granted basing privileges there, saying the work only involves planned infrastructure improvements.
The statement by the National Committee for Maritime Security on Monday was in response to recent media reports highlighting new concerns over China's suspected plans for Cambodia's Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. The stories were based on satellite photos showing the demolished facility and earlier statements from Cambodian officials.
The committee said its Tactical Command Headquarters, "an operational unit responsible for implementing multi-agency law enforcement" in cooperation with the United States and Australia, had been a temporary structure, and plans were begun in late 2017 to relocate it.
It said the existing facility was too small and lacked docking facilities, with limited capacity for training and other activities, so a larger facility was being established at a new location, with no change in function or relationships with foreign partners.
China is Cambodia's closest political ally and main source of economic support, through aid and investment.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declared in June that China has not been given exclusive rights to use the base, while also saying that warships from all nations, including the United States, are welcome to dock there. He pointed out that Cambodia's Constitution does not allow foreign military bases to be established on its soil.
The Wall Street Journal reported last year that an early draft of a reputed agreement seen by U.S. officials would allow China 30-year use of the Ream base, where it would be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.
Western analysts believe basing rights in Cambodia would extend Beijing's strategic military profile considerably, and tilt the regional balance of power in a manner that would pressure adjacent countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations whose security concerns traditionally have been aligned more closely with the United States.
Speculation about China being allowed military facilities in the area was heightened by a deal giving a Chinese company control over a large part of the coastline, and construction of an airport on its land that appeared to be designed to accommodate military aircraft as well as civilian planes.
The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced last month that it was imposing sanctions under U.S. law on China's Union Development Group Co. Ltd., the company behind the coastal land deal.
It charged that the company "forced Cambodians from their land and devastated the environment, hurting the livelihoods of local communities, all under the guise of converting Cambodia into a regional logistics hub and tourist destination."
The Treasury Department said in announcing the sanctions that the Chinese company in 2008 acquired a 99-year lease from Cambodia's government for the development of the Dara Sakor project covering almost 20% of Cambodia's coastline by forming a local company to become the leaseholder. The company later reverted to Chinese ownership, the Treasury Department said.