This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A training course for Cambodian navy staff is underway at the newly built Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province, according to the base’s social media.
On Dec. 7, an on-ship training course led by Chinese instructors opened at Ream for Cambodia’s officers and sailors, the semi-official Ream Naval Base News said on Facebook.
Satellite data provided by the imaging company Planet Labs show the two Chinese vessels are still docked at the pier as of Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. They have been there at least since Dec. 1.
Radio Free Asia was first to report about the arrival of Chinese naval vessels at Ream earlier last week. They are the first foreign ships to have been given access to the newly built base and its deep-draft pier, developed with help from China.
It is unclear how long the training course would last but “in-port training exchanges can take 5-10 working days, depending on the extent and type of training,” said Carl Schuster, a retired U.S. Navy captain and former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
The Ream Naval Base News released some photos of the course’s opening ceremony showing Chinese crew, both in uniform and plain clothed, sitting among Cambodian military staff.
“These are early days for the Cambodians to be learning about ‘big’ ships, at least compared to what they’re used to – patrol boats,” according to another defense analyst, Tom Shugart.
The scope of training may be limited as “at this point I think most of the logistical facilities are still under construction,” said Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow with the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.
“The ships do not seem to have gone to sea. So I suspect the training consisted of in port training, equipment familiarization and bi-lateral discussions, classes, etc.,” said Schuster, who added “all port visits have a political element.”
“Allowing ship tours to visitors from the town, working with local naval forces and meeting with local officials often are more important than the training activities,” the analyst explained.
Meanwhile, the new commander of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, Rear Adm. Mey Dina, has visited Vietnam “to promote bilateral cooperation,” the Vietnamese Navy said.
Mey Dina, who used to act as the base’s spokesperson, has recently taken over from Adm. Ouk Seiha.
The Navy’s newspaper said the commander and his delegation arrived in Phu Quoc, home of the Navy’s 5th Region Command, on Dec. 12.
The rear admiral met with his counterpart and co-chaired a workshop to review Cambodia-Vietnam joint naval patrols in the Gulf of Thailand. He left in the afternoon on Dec. 13.
Vietnam, whose Phu Quoc island lies less than 30 km (18.6 miles) from Ream, has not officially reacted to the news of the Chinese ships but Vietnamese officials have maintained that “the cooperation between countries should contribute positively to peace, security, stability and prosperity in the region as well as across the world.”
A Vietnamese maritime observer who wishes to stay anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue said “almost certainly Rear Adm. Mey Dina and his Vietnamese host spoke about the Chinese ships’ presence at Ream.”
Vietnam and China are part of an ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea and China’s gaining a foothold in the Gulf of Thailand so close may play to Vietnam’s great disadvantage, the observer added.
In June 2021 China and Cambodia began developing the Ream Naval Base, in Preah Sihanouk province, with Beijing’s funding.
The base appears to be almost complete after two years of construction, with a modern deep-draft pier that can accommodate aircraft carriers.
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 second foreign naval staging facility in the world after the one in Djibouti.
A U.S. State Department’s spokesperson told Reuters on Dec. 6 that Washington has “serious concerns about the PRC’s plans for exclusive control over portions of Ream Naval Base,” calling China by its former name, People’s Republic of China.