Ream Naval Base: China’s iron-clad influence in Cambodia is causing concerns

In recent months, there are suspicions that new facilities at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, situated on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, close to the South China Sea, are being built for the exclusive use of the Chinese navy.  Both China and Cambodia have denied the allegation.

A statement by the Cambodian Embassy in Washington said that “the renovation of the base serves solely to strengthen the Cambodian naval capacities to protect its maritime integrity and combat maritime crimes including illegal fishing.”  However, Cambodia has received financial aid from China to build the facilities.

On June 6, The Washington Post claimed that China is building naval facilities at the Ream Naval Base, which raised concerns that Beijing seeks to establish a military outpost there.  Back in 2020, a U.S.-funded building on the Ream base was demolished after Cambodian authority rejected a U.S. offer for further funding.  According to a Pentagon report last year, this move suggested “that Cambodia may have instead accepted assistance from the (China) to develop the base.”

China’s need for overseas naval bases

China’s first foreign naval base is in the East African country of Djibouti. Having a facility capable of hosting large naval vessels to the west of the South China Sea would give China a strategic advantage in expanding its influence in the region and strengthening its presence near key Southeast Asian Sea lanes.

Even though China’s navy already has the largest number of vessels in the world, “without a significant network of robust overseas facilities, their ability to use them falls off rapidly with distance from China,” said Andrew Erickson, research director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College.

China is nowhere close to matching the network of military bases the United States has around the world, a major U.S. military and strategic advantage, said Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Centre for a New American Security.

Fontaine added that a naval base in Cambodia “gives them a force-projection capability that they would otherwise not have in the region. That’s intrinsic to the Chinese aspiration of having a more dominant military presence throughout the Asian rimland and in the South China Sea, allowing Beijing to hold at risk — and have political influence over — countries quite far from the Chinese shore.”

“We assess that the Indo-Pacific is an important piece for China’s leaders, who see the Indo-Pacific as China’s rightful and historic sphere of influence,” one Western official said. “They view China’s rise there as part of a global trend toward a multipolar world where major powers more forcefully assert their interests in their perceived sphere of influence.”

The official said that Beijing is banking on the region being “unwilling or unable to challenge China’s core interests,” and through a combination of coercion, punishment and inducements in the diplomatic, economic and military realms, believes it can get countries to bend to its interests. “Essentially, China wants to become so powerful that the region will give in to China’s leadership rather than face the consequences (for not doing so).”

Concerns about China’s military reach in Southeast Asia

The secrecy around the base appeared to be driven primarily by Cambodian sensitivities and concern about a domestic backlash, another western official said. There is strong domestic opposition to the idea of a foreign military base, said the official, noting the constitutional ban on the presence of foreign military in the country.

Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh said that “Cambodia, time and again, has clarified that the Kingdom will not allow any countries to set-up a military base on her territory.” The constitution only allows foreign military bases inside Cambodia within the framework of a United Nations’ request.

However, U.S. spokeswoman Stephanie Arzate said the United States and other countries in the region had “expressed concern about the lack of transparency on the intent, nature, and scope of this project”, as well as China’s role in its construction.

“An exclusive PRC military presence at Ream could threaten Cambodia’s autonomy and undermine regional security,” Arzate told Agence France-Presse.

The current Cambodian government has good relations with its neighbouring countries, particularly Vietnam and Thailand. However, allowing a Chinese military base or presence in Cambodia could lead to a deterioration of relationship with Thailand and Vietnam.

Chinese presence in Ream Naval Base could “pose an enormous risk” to the operation of the Vietnamese navy, whose 5th regional command is located just around 30 kilometers away, said Khac Giang Nguyen, an analyst at the Victoria University of Wellington. 

When asked about the Beijing-funded developments during a press conference on June 9, Le Thi Thu Hang, Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, replied: “Vietnam always wishes to maintain and consolidate good cooperative ties with countries around the world.

“At the same time, cooperation between countries needs to make positive contributions to peace, security, stability and prosperity in the region and the world.”

Cambodia’s recent efforts at improving relations with the U.S. would be rendered useless if China established a military presence in the country. During the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit back in May, Cambodia expressed its support for the elevation of U.S.-ASEAN relations to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership. 

Chinese presence would affect economic support from the U.S. and other western countries, which is significant for Cambodia’s economic development. 

U.S. sanctions Cambodian officials for corruption

On November 2021, under the Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two senior Cambodian defence officials, Chau Phirun, director-general of the Defence Ministry’s material and technical services department, and Tea Vinh, commander of the Royal Cambodian Navy and brother of Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh.

The Treasury Department alleged that between 2020 and 2021, Chau conspired with Tea and other Cambodian officials to inflate costs of the Ream Naval Base construction project and then planned to use the funds for their own benefit.

The Act also called on the U.S. administration to monitor Chinese military activities in Cambodia, including new construction at the Ream Naval Base and at the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort in Koh Kong Province. Lawmakers feared Chinese presence could affect the interests of allies and partners in the region.

Photo credit: iStock/Oleksii Liskonih

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