The West is concerned about what Beijing’s envoy has described as an “iron-clad cooperation” between China and Cambodia, as the two countries take the initial steps toward a Chinese-funded upgrading of the Ream Naval Base in south Cambodia.

The commencement of the project at the Ream Naval Base, which Cambodian officials say will employ grant funding from China to rebuild the port, comes despite Western concerns that Beijing is eyeing a military base at the Gulf of Thailand facility. China’s role at the Ream Naval Base, which is strategically located near the southern tip of Cambodia near the South China Sea, has received scrutiny from Washington in recent years as it looks for evidence of Beijing’s military expansion.

According to the US State Department, in a meeting with Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn last month, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reaffirmed US concerns about China’s “military presence and building of infrastructure” at the facility.

Both Phnom Penh and Beijing, which have strengthened economic and political ties in recent years, have reacted angrily to such fears, denying a claim this week that China is developing its own naval base at the Ream Naval Base.

The denials came after The Washington Post claimed on Monday, citing anonymous Western officials, that China is quietly constructing a naval station on the base’s northern end for its military’s exclusive use.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the claims as “a classic bullying act” by the US.

“The US has frequently made malicious speculations, attacked and smeared Cambodia, and even threatened and pressured Cambodia,” Zhao stated.

According to the state-run news agency Agence Kampuchea Presse, Prak Sokhonn also denied “baseless claims” in a phone discussion with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Tuesday (AKP).

During a visit to Indonesia on Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described the findings as “concerning.”

“We’ve known about Beijing’s activity at Ream for some time, and we encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intent and ensure that its activities support regional security and stability,” he told reporters, adding that the Cambodian government had “consistently assured” Canberra that no foreign military would be given exclusive access to the Ream base.

China’s recent aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, as well as its growing navy and forceful foreign policy, has alarmed Western officials, who fear Beijing will try to leverage security and other agreements with foreign countries into a military presence abroad.

China’s military currently has only one overseas base, in Djibouti.

Beijing claims that its international ties are aimed at common growth, but it has slammed Washington’s global military basing network.

The “recurring allegation” of a Chinese naval station in Cambodia has been consistently refuted, according to an editorial in the state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times on Thursday.

“If one day, China decides to create new overseas supply bases out of the need to preserve national interests and assume international responsibilities and obligations, it will be aboveboard,” it added.