The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) secretly started building a new naval base in Cambodia, according to western officials who spoke with the Washington Post on Monday.
The PLAN had selected the northern end of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base for its new base and an official told the publication the site is slated for a groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday. The new base would give China expanded access to the Gulf of Thailand and the southern part of the South China Sea.
Both China and Cambodia’s governments have officially denied the reported base construction plans.
If the reported naval base is completed, it will be the second base China has established abroad. China established its first foreign base in the east African country of Djibouti. Construction for the Chinese base in Djibouti began in 2016 and it became operational in 2017.
“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.”
China’s first foreign base, in Djibouti, is situated near the mouth of the strategically valuable Red Sea, through which large quantities of Middle Eastern oil pass on its way to Europe.
China has increasingly tried to assert control over much of the South China Sea. Multiple other nations. Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all asserted overlapping and competing territorial claims over the South China Sea.
A western intelligence official told the Washington Post that this new base in Cambodia is indicative of China’s desire to assert more control over the South China Sea region. One official said China is hoping other countries in the region will eventually be “unwilling or unable to challenge China’s core 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],” the official added.
In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter, that China and Cambodia had signed a secret agreement to allow China to use the Cambodian naval base. Both Cambodia and China denied the 2019 report. At the time, a Chinese military spokesperson said China had merely been helping Cambodia’s military with training and logistical support.
The U.S. previously funded a pair of facilities on Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, but the Cambodian government demolished those buildings in November of 2020. In a visit to Cambodia last year, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman asked about the demolition of the two U.S.-funded facilities at the Ream Naval Base and said a Chinese military base in Cambodia “would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact U.S.-Cambodia relations.”
This weekend, a Chinese official did confirm to the Washington Post that the Chinese military will begin to use “a portion” of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, but denied that the area of the base would fall under the exclusive control of the Chinese military.
A second western official specifically disputed China’s claims that they would not exclusively control a portion of Ream Naval Base. The official said plans drawn up between the Cambodian and Chinese governments in 2020 called for the Chinese military to have “exclusive use of the northern portion of the base, while their presence would remain concealed.”
The Cambodian Embassy in the U.S. told the Washington Post that it “strongly disagrees” with claims the expansion at Ream Naval Base will serve to facilitate China’s military and said the claim is “a baseless accusation motivated to negatively frame Cambodia’s image.” The embassy added that Cambodia “firmly adheres” to its nation’s constitution, which does not allow any foreign military bases or presence in Cambodia.
“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,” the Cambodian embassy said.
A western official told the Washington Post that they expect Cambodia will eventually acknowledge financing and construction for the expansion of Ream Naval Base, but not of the Chinese military’s presence on the expanded portion of the base.
Officials told the Washington Post that both China and Cambodia have taken extensive efforts to conceal the plans to expand Ream Naval Base. An official said that when officials from other nations visit the base, Chinese military personnel at the base wear uniforms similar to their Cambodian counterparts’ or no uniform at all, in order to avoid drawing attention to their presence.
“What we’ve seen is over time is a very clear and consistent pattern of trying to obfuscate and hide both the end goal as well as the extent of Chinese military involvement,” the second official told the Washington Post.
The Chinese military is also reportedly pursuing other military bases, including a base facing the Atlantic. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) commanding Gen. Stephen Townsend said in May of 2021 that China was looking at countries along nearly the entire west African coastline, as far north as Mauritania and as far south as Namibia, in an effort to find an Atlantic base. In December, officials told the Wall Street Journal that China has begun to focus on the central African country of Equatorial Guinea as a top choice.