In the four years since US intelligence first disclosed to The Wall Street Journal that an agreement had been reached granting Beijing military access to Cambodia’s Ream naval base, analysts have watched the development of what many suspectChina’s next overseas military baseNow, satellite images from Maxar Technologies reveal the dramatic transformation the Cambodian naval base, near Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand, is undergoing. This Chinese-funded project would extend Beijing’s military reach into the contested waters of Southeast Asia.
The latest satellite images acquired in June show an assortment of Chinese-funded building activities. Visible are land clearance operations, land reclamation efforts, the construction of several new buildings, roads and importantly a large pier much bigger than the base’s original jetty. New fencing is visible around the base’s perimeter, and buildings funded by the US have been demolished and replaced.
In the past 18 months, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is reported to have allocated 157 hectares to the building of air defences, general command facilities and a naval radar installation near the base. Cambodian state media have reported that new storage facilities, a hospital, drydocks and slipways are planned at Ream.Hun Sen has been in power since 1998,
US influence in Cambodia waning amid his increasingly autocratic tendencies, he has courted Beijing, dropping his hostility to China for its role in supporting the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Beijing has responded with investment and economic incentives, not least in Sihanoukville itself. Cambodia has reciprocated by offering diplomatic support to China.
In the past decade, at ASEAN summits presided over by states such as Vietnam or the Philippines, Cambodia led the way in watering down ASEAN communiques critical of China’s conduct in the South China Sea and, as in 2016, blocked them entirely. This year, Cambodia vetoed a proposal from Indonesia for joint military exercises by ASEAN members in the South China Sea.After a period in which Hun Sen’s regime denied any
Chinese involvement at Ream, both governments now stress that the redevelopment of the base is part of an effort to modernize the Royal Cambodian Navy and is one of numerous Chinese projects to develop Cambodia’s infrastructure. State media in Phnom Penh have reported that Beijing’s primary role involves dredging the harbour and repairing ageing warships and drydocks.
Cambodia’s constitution prohibits foreign military bases on its soil. Yet, in the past two years, statements from Cambodian and Chinese officials have hinted at a larger role for Beijing beyond aiding Cambodia’s small navy.In October 2020, Admiral Vann Bunlieng of the Royal Cambodian Navy confirmed that China was behind the new developments at Ream after months of denials. In June 2021, Cambodia’s defence minister, Tea Banh, revealed Beijing was helping develop the base ‘with no strings attached’.
The following year, an unnamed Chinese official present at the ground-breaking ceremony at Ream told The Washington Post that the Chinese military would use ‘portions of the base’, a statement the Cambodian embassy in Washington later rejected. More recent reporting in The Washington Post suggests that People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) personnel may already be at Ream wearing Cambodian military uniforms to avoid attracting attention.