Here's What You Need to Know: A new base could strengthen the Chinese navy near the highly strategic Strait of Malacca, through which an estimated 80 percent of China’s fuel imports travel.
In October 2020, the United States announced its disappointment that the Cambodian government was tearing down a U.S.-funded building that was used for a maritime security program, but Washington also voiced serious concerns that the Cambodian actions were linked to the possible transformation of the facility for use by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Phnom Penh has maintained what has been described as a “cozy relationship“ with Beijing for many years, but it was only last year that the controversy over the Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand intensified when reports circulated that China was seeking a thirty-year lease of the base. That would include the posting of military personnel along with the store of weapons and berthing of warships.
The base, which is operated by the Royal Cambodian Navy in the province of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, covers approximately 190 acres. Since 2010 it has been the site of annual joint Cambodian-United States training and naval exercises under the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) program.
“We are disappointed that Cambodian military authorities have chosen to demolish a maritime security facility that is only seven years old and was a sign of U.S.-Cambodia relations,” said Chad Roedemeier, information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia in Phnom Penh, via a statement.
“Such a military presence would negatively impact the U.S.-Cambodia bilateral relationship and be disruptive and destabilizing to the Indo-Pacific region,” Roedemeier added.
According to a report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, demolition of the U.S.-built facility occurred sometime after Sept. 5, 2020 and likely around Sept. 10. The building that was demolished was one of several, which will be relocated following Phnom Penh’s deal with Beijing that will grant China access to Ream.
The building was reported to be the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security, and it had been officially inaugurated in 2012. It was renovated and built by the United States and equipped by Australia.
The PLAN’s efforts to establish a presence at Ream seem to be going as planned. Large tracts of land around the base have been leased by Chinese companies including those with close connections and ties to Beijing. While officially leased for commercial development including the building of resort facilities, it is unclear if the land will be used by the PLAN in some other capacity or just perhaps to shield the base with a buffer of Chinese-owned properties.
In addition, efforts have been underway to reclaim land about three miles north of the base—and to date about 100 acres of new landfill have been created for a still unknown purpose.
Holiday in Cambodia
The presence of a base in Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand would provide the PLAN with a new southern flank in the South China Sea but also improve its ability to respond to any conflict near the highly strategic Strait of Malacca, through which an estimated 80 percent of China’s fuel imports travel.
Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen has said that while the new port facilities would be funded by China, the dockyards would be open to all.
“If one foreign navy ship can make a port visit here then ships from other countries can do the same,” he was quoted as saying according to The Diplomat. “We can allow access to ships from many countries to dock cargo ports, but Ream Naval Base is a military port, so you need to ask for permission. We welcome ships from any country not exclusively just Chinese ships to dock, refuel, or hold joint military exercises with Cambodia.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
This article first appeared in October 2020.
Image: A Chinese navy ship is seen docked after an exercise with Cambodian naval officers in Preah Sihanouk province, Cambodia February 26, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring