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Record number of Chinese warships operating in Cambodia

Chinese amphibious landing dock Jinggangshan at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, May 19, 2024. (Ream naval base/Facebook)
May 22, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Two large Chinese warships have arrived in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand on a goodwill visit, joining three vessels already operating in Cambodia.

China’s defense ministry announced the arrival of the training ship Qi Jiguang (Hull 83) at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port on Sunday.

The Cambodian navy, meanwhile, disclosed that the Qi Jiguang was accompanied by a Type 071 amphibious landing dock, the Jinggangshan (Hull 999). 

During their four-day visit from May 19 to May 23, officers and crew from the two vessels are to pay a courtesy call on Cambodian navy leaders, visit military sites and conduct exchanges with Cambodian partners.

There was no mention of the ships’ possible participation in the Golden Dragon exercise, involving Cambodian and Chinese forces, which began on May 16 and last until May 30.

Three other Chinese vessels, including two corvettes and a landing dock, are already taking part in the exercise – the sixth iteration of the annual bilateral wargames and the largest to date.

“From my memory, there weren’t that many People’s Liberation Army Navy’s vessels at any one time in the country,” said Collin Koh, a regional military analyst based in Singapore.

Powerful presence

Of the five Chinese vessels, the two corvettes have been stationed at Cambodia’s Ream naval base for nearly six months.

The two Type 071 landing docks – Jinggangshan and Qilianshan – each have a displacement of 25,000 tons and can carry up to 800 troops, as well as 20 armored vehicles.

The 9,000-ton Qi Jigang is one of the Chinese navy’s main training ships under the Dalian Naval Academy.

“It seems that this unprecedented Chinese naval presence is going to presage a regular presence in Cambodia in the foreseeable future,” said Koh, who is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“The Ream base surely has facilitated this greater presence,” he said.

Another analyst, Paul Chambers of the Center of ASEAN Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand, said that the level of Chinese-Cambodian military relations was “unprecedented.” 

“And then there is a Chinese tourism resort in western Cambodia, which could be easily converted into a Chinese military airfield,” Chambers told RFA, referring to the Dara Sakor resort in Koh Kong province.

“It appears that Cambodia has become a military and economic dependency of China,” the analyst said.

Cambodia’s defense ministry has praised joint activities with China for enhancing its military’s capabilities as well as its combat skills.

The Golden Dragon 2024 exercise is taking place in Kampong Chhnang and Sihanoukville provinces. 

The large number of Chinese vessels this time was not “a game changer but a sign of ever-closer China-Cambodia cooperation given China’s new base there,” said Tom Shugart, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.