Western officials raise concerns over China's secret naval facility in Cambodia

Sailors stand guard near patrol boats at the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, July 26, 2019. [Reuters]

Western officials have raised concerns over China’s establishment of a naval facility in Cambodia.

Although both China and Cambodia in a case of taking extraordinary measures to conceal the operation have denied the claims, the Western officials maintained that China is secretly building the facility for the exclusive use of its military.

The establishment of a naval base in Cambodia is China’s second such overseas outpost and its first in the strategically significant Indo-Pacific region.

This the officials said is one of Beijing’s strategies to build a network of military facilities around the world in support of its aspirations to become a true global power.

The military presence will be on the northern portion of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, which is slated to be the site of a groundbreaking ceremony this week, according to the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

China’s only other foreign military base right now is a naval facility in the East African country of Djibouti. Having a facility capable of hosting large naval vessels to the west of the South China Sea would be an important element of China’s ambition to expand its influence in the region and would strengthen its presence near key Southeast Asian sea lanes, officials and analysts said.

“We assess that the Indo-Pacific is an important piece for China’s leaders, who see the Indo-Pacific as China’s rightful and historic sphere of influence,” one Western official said. “They view China’s rise there as part of a global trend toward a multipolar world where major powers more forcefully assert their interests in their perceived sphere of influence.”

Beijing, the official said, is banking on the region being “unwilling or unable to challenge China’s core interests,” and through a combination of coercion, punishment and inducements in the diplomatic, economic and military realms, believes it can get countries to bend to its interests. “Essentially, China wants to become so powerful that the region will give in to China’s leadership rather than face the consequences [for not doing so],” the official said.

In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had signed a secret agreement to allow its military to use the base, citing U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter. Beijing and Phnom Penh denied the report, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denouncing it as “fake news.” A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman at the time also denounced what it called “rumors” and said China had merely been helping with military training and logistical equipment.

The United States expressed concern to Cambodia over plans for Ream after its offer to pay for renovations at the facility was turned down by the Cambodian government in June.

“This causes us to wonder if the Cambodian leadership’s plans for Ream Naval Base include the possible hosting of foreign military assets and personnel,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg said in a statement.

Chhum Socheat said the building in question would be handed to the Cambodian navy, not to the Chinese.

Giving China access to facilities in Cambodia would boost its ability to assert contested territorial claims in the South China Sea, challenging U.S. allies in Southeast Asia.

The U.S. embassy said it was also monitoring media reports about the potential use of a resort by China.

And over the weekend, a Chinese official in Beijing confirmed to The Washington Post that “a portion of the base” will be used by “the Chinese military.”

The official however, denied it was for “exclusive” use by the military, saying that scientists would also use the facility. The official added that the Chinese are not involved in any activities on the Cambodian portion of the base.

Asked for comment, the Cambodian Embassy in Washington said in a statement that it “strongly disagrees with the content and meaning of the report as it is a baseless accusation motivated to negatively frame Cambodia’s image.”

It added that Cambodia “firmly adheres” to the nation’s constitution, which does not permit foreign military bases or presence on Cambodian soil. “The renovation of the base serves solely to strengthen the Cambodian naval capacities to protect its maritime integrity and combat maritime crimes including illegal fishing,” the statement said.

China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

According to another official, the expansion plans were finalised in 2020, and, significantly, called for the Chinese military to have “exclusive use of the northern portion of the base, while their presence would remain concealed.

He said the two governments have taken pains to mask the presence of the Chinese military at Ream, the official said.

For instance, foreign delegations visiting the base are permitted access only to preapproved locations.

“During these visits, Chinese military personnel at the base wear uniforms similar to their Cambodian counterparts’ or no uniform at all to avoid suspicion from outside observers, the official said. When the defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia visited the base last year, his movements were “very heavily circumscribed,” the official said.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Cambodia in 2021 and sought clarification from Cambodia over the razing the previous year of two U.S.-funded facilities on Ream Naval Base, according to a State Department news release.

The demolition took place after Cambodia declined a U.S. offer to pay to renovate one of them, according to Pentagon report on Chinese military developments last year. That move, the report said, “suggests that Cambodia may have instead accepted assistance from the [People’s Republic of China] to develop the base.”

“What we’ve seen in over time is a very clear and consistent pattern of trying to obfuscate and hide both the end goal as well as the extent of Chinese military involvement,” the official said adding “The key thing here is the [PLA’s] exclusive use of the facility and having a unilateral military base in another country.”

Last year, the “Joint Vietnamese Friendship” building, a facility built by the Vietnamese, was relocated off Ream Naval Base to avert conflicts with Chinese military personnel, the officials said. China and Vietnam have long had a tense relationship, with Hanoi and Beijing clashing over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea for half a century.

The secrecy around the base appears to be driven primarily by Cambodian sensitivities and concern about a domestic backlash, the second official said. There is strong domestic opposition to the idea of a foreign military base, said the official, noting the constitutional ban on the presence of foreign military in the country.

As the chair of the 10-member regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, Cambodia is keen to avoid the perception that it is, as the second official said, “a pawn” of Beijing.