This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The China-backed Ream naval base in southwestern Cambodia has expanded quickly over the past year, satellite images show.
Since July, when Radio Free Asia reported about the development of a new deep-draft pier that could accommodate aircraft carriers at the base’s center-west, more land reclamation and construction has been carried out.
“They’ve cleared a lot more land in the southeast part of the base,” said political analyst Tom Shugart, who has been following the project since the beginning. The newly cleared area is now approximately 30 hectares (75 acres).
The deep-draft pier appears completed in the latest images provided by the Earth imaging company Planet Labs.
“The long side of the new pier is about 330 meters (1,082 feet) [long enough for a carrier], the short side is about 250 meters (820 feet), long enough for every other ship in the PLA Navy,” said Shugart, Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. The analyst referred to the Chinese Navy by its official name the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
A closer examination revealed “four fuel tanks that may be under construction on the east side of the base, each about 20 meters (65 feet) in diameter,” according to Shugart.
A number of structures, probably barracks, administration buildings and workshops, are seen at the center and northwest of the base.
PLA naval base?
In June 2021 China and Cambodia began developing the Ream Naval Base, in Preah Sihanouk province on the Gulf of Thailand, with Beijing’s funding.
Cambodia has repeatedly denied that China is being given exclusive military access to the base, saying that would be in contradiction to the country’s constitution. If operating from the base, this would be China’s first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and the second foreign base in the world after one in Djibouti.
The Ream base “now appears even more expensive and capable than previous reports suggested,” said well-known maritime blogger H.I. Sutton in an article on the Naval News website.
“There is clear evidence of a new dry dock being constructed,” he added, pointing at what appears to be a structure on a reclaimed land area at the south of the base.
Shugart from the Center for a New American Security, however, cast doubt on the statement saying that the length of the structure is about 150m and “too short for PLAN destroyers and larger vessels.”
The article in Naval News focused on the increased strategic importance of the Ream base which is, in the author’s opinion, “one of several throughout the Indian Ocean, Middle East and Africa.”
“The war in Ukraine reminds us that the ability to perform maintenance and repairs on warships is critical to sustain combat operations,” Sutton wrote, “China will not want to face the same challenges that Russia does currently in the Mediterranean.”
The base’s size and construction suggest it is not designed for the Cambodian Navy’s use as “Cambodia’s small navy barely has any naval vessels over 50 meters (164 feet) in length.”
“There is now little doubt that it is a PLAN overseas base,” he concluded.
In March, the then Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lashed out against the base’s critics, accusing them of “a campaign to slander” his country.
Hun Sen said the base “is not a threat against anyone” while U.S. officials repeatedly called for Cambodia to be transparent about the true plans for Ream.
Virak Ou, a Cambodian analyst who serves as president of the Future Forum think tank, said “the whole conversation seems to have been driven by the U.S.”
He added: “There are legitimate concerns of our neighbors but more ASEAN voices are needed” in the discussions.
“Thailand should be aware about this,” said Dulyapak Preecharush, Associate Professor of Asian Studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok.
“The base may increase Cambodian naval capability over the overlapping area between Thailand and Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand,” Dulyapak told RFA, noting that this is “an important area which has abundant oil and natural gas deposits.”
The two neighbors share overlapping claims over approximately 26,000 square kilometers of waters in the gulf and have been engaged in discussions about joint development arrangements there.
“In the future, this base might pose maritime security threat to Thailand,” said Dulyapak, adding that both Ream and the nearby China-funded Dara Sakor economic zone are not so far from Thailand’s U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield built by the U.S. army during the Cold War.
“Chinese strategic influence in Cambodia and the Gulf of Thailand can stimulate the U.S. to increase its strategic engagement with Thailand for counterweighting China, resulting in Thailand’s strategic adaptation between these two major powers,” Dulyapak noted.
The Ream naval base is less than 30 km (18 miles) from Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island. Hanoi’s officials, when asked about the project, have been insisting that “the cooperation between nations should contribute to peace, security, stability and prosperity in the region as well as across the world.”
The Vietnamese Navy is often invited to visit not Ream but the Sihanoukville port some 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.