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U.S. Officials Warn of Growing Chinese Naval Presence in Cambodia

cambodian navy
Cambodian and U.S. Navy personnel during an exercise near Ream Naval Base, 2012 (USN)

Published Jun 7, 2022 8:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

China is secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia for exclusive use of its military, according to a new report from the Washington Post.

U.S. officials told the Post that a groundbreaking ceremony for the new complex at Ream Naval Base is set for Thursday. It will be China’s second overseas naval base, in addition to its complex in the East African nation of Djibouti.

Both China and Cambodia have denied the reports, and Cambodia claims the base is undergoing renovation to strengthen its capacity.

American officials have been suspicious of the growing Chinese role at Ream Naval Base for some time. In 2020, Cambodia demolished the former tactical headquarters building of its  National Committee for Maritime Security at Ream. The building had been repaired and re-equipped by the United States and Australia as part of a foreign assistance package in 2012, and its destruction prompted questions about whether China could be edging out American influence.

According to U.S. officials, Cambodia would allow China to use a section of the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after that. China would also be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.

A naval port in Cambodia would give China a presence near the Singapore Strait, a key maritime chokepoint. Approximately 83,000 vessels transit the strait every year, which amounts to nearly 40 percent of the world’s maritime traffic.

In addition, the PLA Navy would gain a larger maneuver space in the southern corner of the South China Sea, where China’s maritime claims overlap with the EEZs of Indonesia and Vietnam.

On Tuesday, Cambodia’s main government spokesman, Phay Siphan, confirmed that two groundbreaking events are scheduled at the base this week. One project pertains to the construction of a vessel repair workshop and a slipway. Siphan downplayed claims that China has exclusive access to the base and said he had no knowledge of reports that a Chinese GNSS (BeiDou) ground station has been installed there.

The base is not the only Chinese installation in the area. Just across the bay is the new Chinese-built Dara Sakor airport. Though it is located in a province with a population of 200,000 people, Dara Sakor is expected to have Cambodia’s longest runway. If adapted for military purposes, it could give the PLA new strategic reach and provide a logistics connection for Ream Naval Base.

China's Shanghai Construction Company and China Bridge and Road Company are also building a $1.5 billion deepwater commercial seaport at the town of Kompot, near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam. The multi-purpose port will have a water depth of nearly 50 feet, and it is slated to open in 2025.

Longtime Cambodian ruler Hun Sen is considered one of China's closest regional allies, and China is Cambodia’s largest investor and trading partner.