Cambodian officials say renovation work on a naval base in the coastal city of Sihanoukville is nearly complete, but U.S. officials have voiced suspicions the facility, being upgraded by China, will be used exclusively by China's military.
Suspicions about China’s intentions for the Ream naval base were raised after satellite imagery showed that a major pier capable of anchoring aircraft carriers had been constructed on the site.
Chhum Socheat, a spokesman for the Cambodia National Defense Ministry, confirmed to VOA Khmer that the work will be completed soon but said, “I don’t know the inauguration day.”
He denied speculation that China will use the base to expand its influence in the region against its rival, the United States.
“I regret that there is untrue information. Cambodia is very small. They [some countries] have bad intentions on our country,” he said.
“Some countries don’t acknowledge the truth, and they still say untrue information,” he said.
Satellite imagery taken by BlackSky, a U.S. commercial imagery company that monitors the construction at Ream naval base, noted “the rapid pace of development of a large Chinese military naval station from August 2021 until July 2023.”
“There is a near-exact similarity between an angled deep-water pier located on the western shore of the Ream base and another military pier at the People’s Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti.
“Both main piers are 363 meters long and large enough to support any ship in China’s naval arsenal, including the new 300-meter-long Type 003 Fujian aircraft carrier,” said Craig Singleton, China Program deputy director and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a July 24 release on BlackSky’s website.
In August 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue with the Cambodian government about the naval base it is modernizing with Chinese funds, saying use of the site would pose a threat to Southeast Asia if used exclusively for China’s military. He made his remarks during a visit to Phnom Penh.
In discussing the naval base, Blinken told VOA Khmer that U.S. concern “is first and foremost in making sure that Cambodia has a truly independent foreign policy, and is not, does not feel pressured, of course, by anyone.”
"And when it comes to the Ream naval base, I think countries throughout the region would be very concerned if any one country had exclusive control or use of any portion of the base or was doing anything there that undermined the security of other countries in the region. So, I think it's important to have transparency and to make sure that the base is open to all, and not the exclusive use of any one country,” the top U.S. diplomat said.
Political analyst Em Sovannara told VOA Khmer the Ream base is “a very sensitive issue” that requires the Cambodian government to be transparent to allay U.S. suspicions.
''If it is just a political statement via news outlets, it can’t solve or clear doubts from the U.S. Thus, there should be other mechanisms for strengthening diplomatic ties with the U.S., which is a way to solve the issue,” he said.
The United States has alleged that China will maintain a military presence at Ream, Beijing’s second such overseas outpost and its first in the strategically significant Indo-Pacific region. It also has an outpost in Djibouti, at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Tea Banh, Cambodia’s defense minister, said in June 2022 the Ream base would most likely not be open for full examination by any foreigners after completion.
He said that Cambodia would not allow any foreign military base on its soil and “has no intention to provoke any threats to any country, and Cambodia is never against other countries’ ‘military building efforts.’”
“Cambodia just wants to strengthen its protection capacities to curb against pressure and impacts of the current geopolitics competition,” he said, adding, “Cambodia has no policy to choose one country against one country.”
In October 2022, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh told VOA Khmer the Cambodian government had “not been fully transparent about the intent, nature and scope of this project.”
Ream is on the Gulf of Thailand near the South China Sea, where China has claimed sovereignty and disregarded international law.
The Wall Street Journal in 2019 also reported that China had signed an agreement to have People's Liberation Army officers stationed at the naval base. Satellite imagery has shown the demolition of buildings, some built by the United States, and the recent construction of two structures on the base’s northern half.
Some information for this article comes from Agence France-Presse.