The Possibility Of A Chinese Base In Cambodia: Reality, Rationale, And Impact – Analysis


By Premesha Saha

Reports of a Chinese-funded and built military base in Cambodia near the disputed South China Sea have been doing the rounds for some years now. This got more steam after a report from The Washington Post recently, stated that “unnamed western officials are saying the new facilities at Cambodia’s Ream base—strategically located on the Gulf of Thailand—were being built for the exclusive use of the Chinese navy.” In 2019 also, The Washington Post had reported that “China had signed a secret agreement to allow its military and armed forces to use exclusively a part of Ream Naval Base, which is located on Cambodia’s southern coast facing the Gulf of Thailand. ” At that time, the US officials had pointed out, “that the site—while stopping short of being a full-scale Chinese base—would give Beijing its first dedicated naval staging facility in Southeast Asia.”

Early this month, redevelopment work or upgradation completely financed and funded by China has begun at Cambodia’s Ream naval base on the South China Sea. Gen. Chau Phirun, Director-General of the Cambodian Defence Ministry’s material and technical-services department, said that, “Over two years, Chinese firms and technical experts from China’s military will build and renovate a number of structures, including a maintenance workshop, slipway and dry dock for repairing vessels, warehouse, two new piers, and electrical, water, and sewage infrastructure.” At the ground-breaking ceremony held on 8 June, 2022, Beijing’s Cambodia envoy, Wang Wentian, said that “Chinese-Cambodian military cooperation was a strong pillar of an ironclad partnership.”

For quite some time, there have been reports of alarm bells in the US about a possible presence of the Chinese military forces at the Ream naval base. This base could be used by the PLA Navy for expanded access to the contested South China Sea. The US fears and doubts had been flared when in October 2020, there were satellite images that showed that the Cambodian government had demolished two facilities that the Americans built-in 2012 at the Ream Naval Base—despite offers coming from Washington to renovate these facilities. Between 2010 and 2016, for bilateral exercises between the US Navy and the Royal Cambodian Navy, the Ream Naval base was often used.

Cambodia on the other hand has always denied such reports saying that this would be a violation of their constitution, which clearly lays out a clause against having and denying access to foreign military bases and presence on the Cambodian soil. Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh repeatedly stressed during the ceremony that the “project is in line with Cambodia’s constitution, which bars foreign military bases on its territory, and that the Southeast Asian nation is open to development assistance from other countries. We need to upgrade our base to protect our nation, territory, and sovereignty,” Tea Banh said, describing “the project as a modernisation that includes construction and renovation work on a dry dock, pier, and slipway.” Chinese officials have also stated that “Upgrading the base is not targeted at any third party, only to strengthen Cambodian naval forces’ capabilities to uphold maritime territorial sovereignty and crack down on sea crimes and will be conducive to even closer practical cooperation between the two militaries.” However, still The Washington Posthad reported that “a Beijing official has confirmed that the Chinese military, and Chinese scientists, will use a portion of the base.”

This issue has once again highlighted the fact that Southeast Asia is one of the main grounds of the US-China great power competition. China-Cambodia ties have been growing very strongly as Cambodia has been at the receiving end of billions of dollars in infrastructure and development projects from China. Cambodia has always strongly supported the Belt and Road Initiative and has on many occasions been found to do China’s bidding in ASEAN meetings. Cambodia has longed for development finance, which has been provided by China and the US has offered very little investment. Some in the US, have also said that, “Cambodia is not interested in a positive relationship with the United States”. Cambodian officials resent the US’s focus on human rights and governance issues. The US, last year, imposed sanctions against the Defence Ministry official Gen. Chau, saying he had conspired in 2020 and 2021 to profit from activities involved in the construction and updating of Ream Naval Base facilities. On her visit to Cambodia last year, Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman had also sought clarification on these reports about the Ream Naval base and the demolition of the two US-funded buildings on the base. She had further stated that, “Chinese military base in Cambodia would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US–Cambodia relations.” The US is still trying to get back its influence and place in Southeast Asia by launching of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in which  mostly all the ASEAN countries are participating. However,Cambodia, again, chose not to be a part of  the IPEF. In the US foreign policy, Southeast Asia has undoubtedly suffered from relative negligence. This has allowed China to come in and grow its footprints in the region. China is now the largest trading partner of most of the ASEAN countries, but the US is still the largest supplier of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the region. However, the US will have very limited sway on Cambodia at the moment and from what it seems, even in the future.

Experts have pointed out that if the Chinese military is able to use the base, then “they would be able to use the Cambodian facility to further assert Beijing’s expansive territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. Beijing is seeking to establish more military and dual-use facilities around the world, in line with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambitions to turn China into a first-rate military power capable of projecting force over greater distances and going toe-to-toe with Western rivals.” China, for long, has been engaged in developing artificial islands, some say even naval bases in the disputed South China Sea. This has led to growing concerns amongst the other claimant countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, amongst others. Additionally, other stakeholders like the US, Australia, Japan, India and now some European countries like France, the UK, and Germany are also expressing concerns. The US has engaged in Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) under the guise of maintaining freedom of navigation in the disputed waters and keeping the growing Chinese assertiveness in check. The US is now also engaging in joint exercises with Australia and Japan in these disputed waters. Some Southeast Asian analysts have expressed concerns about the growing “militarisation of the South China Sea”. The South China Sea is the breeding ground for US-China competition in Southeast Asia and the ASEAN countries are caught in the middle of it.

Not only in the US, but these reports have also raised speculation and concern in countries like Australia. Australia’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, in his recent visit to Indonesia, when asked about the reports on the possibility of a Chinese base in Cambodia, said that, “We encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intent and to ensure that its activities support regional security and stability”.

Though there are very little chances of this report being true, but if it is, the most affected country would be the neighbouring country, Vietnam, who have presented a tough stand to Beijing in the South China Sea dispute. As has been pointed out by, Alexander Vuving, Professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii, “It puts Vietnam into a two-front or even three-front situation where it has to face Chinese military presence not just along its northern border and in the South China Sea but also on its southwestern border.”

Though Cambodia–China ties appear to be very strong, there is hardly any reason, especially considering the provision in the Cambodian constitution to believe that Cambodia would give a nod to Ream Naval Base being used by the Chinese military for power projection or combat operations in the region. Additionally, the portion of the base offered to China as identified in reports is 0.3 square kilometers (or 0.12 square miles), and this is miniscule and it has been repeatedly mentioned by Cambodian officials that the facilities being built is for the use of the Cambodians and not the PLA. Since if a Chinese base is developed, this will have an impact on peace and security in Southeast Asia as a whole, and therefore, it seems hard to comprehend if Cambodia will want to risk its relations with its ASEAN partners.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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