Speculation Mounts Over Chinese Naval Base in Cambodia

Chinese funded construction begins at strategic port . . .

On Wednesday, Cambodian and Chinese officials broke ground on the renovation and expansion of the Ream Port in Cambodia, on the Gulf of Thailand. The renovation project is funded by China and is expected to be completed in two years. When finished, the naval base will include a dry dock for ship repairs, an extended pier, a hospital, a workshop, and other buildings. Dredging will also be done to allow larger ships to use the port. The Washington Post reported on Monday that a portion of the base would be for the exclusive use of the Chinese military, sparking concerns about China’s intentions.

Lack of transparency causes concern . . .

While the expansion project at Ream is only officially starting now, satellite imagery has shown ongoing construction at the naval base since 2020. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that China signed a secret agreement with Cambodia to allow the Chinese navy to use a portion of Ream in return for funding new construction at the port. Many countries have expressed concern, but both Cambodian and Chinese officials have repeatedly denied the claim that the port will become a Chinese naval base, reiterating that the Cambodian Constitution does not permit foreign military bases or presence on its soil.

Is China expanding its sphere of influence or seeking to protect overseas assets?

While some argue that China is expanding its reach to protect its assets and Chinese companies and nationals abroad, others are ringing alarm bells over China’s increasing capacity to project its power abroad. China already possesses one overseas naval base in Djibouti in East Africa, and a recent deal with Solomon Islands could lead to another in the South Pacific. Access to a naval base in Southeast Asia through its deal with Cambodia would allow China to significantly increase its ability to enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea and extend its reach over the strategically important Strait of Malacca. This will undoubtedly be a widely discussed topic at the Shangri-la Dialogue, Asia’s main dialogue on regional security, which commences this weekend in Singapore.