PHNOM PENH: Cambodia and Beijing on Tuesday (Jun 7) denied a report that they are building a secret naval facility for the Chinese fleet, as Australia's new prime minister voiced concern and called for transparency.
The Washington Post, citing unnamed Western officials, said a new facility at Cambodia's Ream base – strategically located on the Gulf of Thailand – was being built for the "exclusive" use of the Chinese navy.
The base has been a running sore spot in US-Cambodian relations for years, with Washington long suspecting it is being converted for use by China as it seeks to buttress its international influence with a network of military outposts.
Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn rejected the report as "groundless accusations" in a call with Australia's foreign minister Penny Wong, according to a statement released late on Tuesday by Phnom Penh.
Earlier a spokesman had said the base's development was "not a secret".
"Cambodia won't allow the Chinese military to use it exclusively or to develop the site as its military base," government spokesman Phay Siphan told AFP.
The Cambodian defence minister and China's ambassador will be attending a ground-breaking ceremony on Wednesday for new facilities at Ream, including a boat repair shop and a pier.
But Australia's new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, in Indonesia for a visit to shore up diplomatic ties to counter growing Chinese assertiveness in the region, labelled the reports "concerning".
"We encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intent and to ensure that its activities support regional security and stability," he told reporters, saying Cambodia had assured Canberra that no foreign military would be given exclusive access to the Ream base.
Australia has grown increasingly worried about Beijing's growing influence in the Pacific region.
A leaked draft of a Soloman Islands-China pact in April raised concerns that it would allow Chinese naval deployments to the Pacific island nation – less than 2,000km from Australia.