Officials from China and Cambodia said that they had officially begun work on a major expansion to Cambodia’s largest naval base June 8. The project is being funded by China, and one official from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) described it as evidence of the two nations’ “iron-clad partnership.”
The announcement is likely to ruffle feathers among the American national security community, which has issued warnings since 2019 that Cambodia and China had drafted a secret pact that would guarantee China unfettered military access to the port upon its completion, which sits on the Gulf of Thailand.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen derided the warnings as fake news at the time.
“This is the worst-ever made up news against Cambodia,” Sen said in 2019.
“No such thing could happen because hosting foreign military bases is against the Cambodian constitution.”
On June 8, however, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh said that any country could use the facilities at the Ream naval base, and that Cambodia was open to accepting military assistance from all nations.
Chinese dredge ships were first seen in January preparing the area for the expansion, which includes plans for a dry dock, an extended pier, a hospital, a workshop, and a “reception building.”
The expansion and modernization of the base will increase the size of the vessels serviced there five times over, from those with a displacement of 1,000 tons to those of 5,000 tons. That means that the port will still be too small to house China’s newest Type 055 guided missile cruisers, but will be able to host its smaller frigates, including those equipped with anti-ship missiles and electronic warfare packages.
For his part, Minister Banh urged defense attaches from the United States not to worry about the implications of a sign present at the groundbreaking, which read that the project was funded by “grant aid from the People’s Republic of China.”
“Please don’t be too worried about this Ream base,” Banh said.
“This port is too small and even after upgrading it can’t be a port that would threaten any countries.”
Ream sits on the Gulf of Thailand, immediately adjacent to the South China Sea, where China has continuously asserted illegal claims to expand its territory, both through invented “historical rights” and also through the creation of artificial islands which it claims are part of its territory proper.
Wang Wentian, the CCP’s ambassador to Cambodia, said that the construction would follow a plan agreed upon by Sen and CCP leader Xi Jinping, and would “…promote the building of a community with a shared future with strategic significance.”
The port, Wang said, would be a testament to “the ironclad friendship and cooperation between the two militaries” of China and Cambodia.
The CCP has worked for years to sway Cambodia into its sphere of influence and away from better relations with the United States. In 2016, it led an effort to overhaul the Cambodian judicial system to be more like that of China’s. Likewise, China has invested hundreds of billions into Cambodian infrastructure while helping Cambodia to demolish buildings previously made with U.S. funding.
The port project at Ream Naval Base is just the latest in a series of moves by the CCP to aggressively expand its overseas military presence through the creation of bases and security arrangements, the most recent of which being its attempt to secure a 10-nation security deal in the western Pacific.
The CCP currently only acknowledges one overseas military base in the Republic of Djibouti, just south of Yemen.
The Ream expansion project is expected to take two years to complete. It is not currently clear how much it will cost.