Chinese navy is operating out of Cambodia's Ream base: US think tank

The prolonged presence of 2 Chinese vessels suggests a deeper involvement than Phnom Penh admits.
By RFA Staff
2024.04.19
Chinese navy is operating out of Cambodia's Ream base: US think tank Two Chinese warships, circled, are seen at Cambodia's Ream naval base on April 18, 2024.
Planet Labs

UPDATED at 9:20 am ET on April 19, 2024

Cambodia appears to have given the Chinese navy extended and exclusive access to its naval base in Ream despite official claims that they only arrived for training purposes, a U.S. think tank said.

Radio Free Asia first reported on the arrival of two Chinese corvettes last December, the first foreign warships allowed to dock at the new Chinese-built pier at Ream, Sihanoukville province.

The ships left the pier on January 15, 2024, only to return several days later, said the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. in a new report.

AMTI analyzed commercial satellite imagery that shows the Chinese vessels “have now maintained a consistent presence for over four months.”

“It appears that they've been based there, just as the leaked 2019 MOU [memorandum of understanding] suggested they would be,” said Greg Poling, AMTI’s director, referring to the reported controversial agreement between Cambodia and China in 2019 giving Beijing exclusive rights to part of the Ream naval base. 

“This isn't just a visit or an exercise,” Poling told RFA. “Despite the Hun Sen and Hun Manet governments' denials, the PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] is operating out of Ream.”

Training Cambodian navy

The AMTI report said that no other ships, including Cambodian vessels, have been seen docking at the new pier, “which was completed last year to enable larger warships to dock in Ream’s shallow waters.”

This indicates “a visible sign of privileged access for China’s military,” it said, adding that the degree of China’s access to Ream in the future will confirm whether Ream has become a Chinese naval base.

Tea Banh (1).JPG
Former Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh visits a Chinese warship at Ream naval base, Dec. 3, 2023.  (Facebook: Tea Seiha)

Cambodia is preparing for the upcoming annual joint exercise Golden Dragon with the Chinese military, part of which will be conducted at sea, RFA has learned. Naval commanders held a meeting in Phnom Penh on April 18 to discuss the exercise.

It is unclear whether the Chinese vessels currently at Ream would take part in Golden Dragon 2024. In last year’s iteration, the two navies conducted their first-ever joint naval drills in the waters off Sihanoukville, but with a landing ship dispatched from China.

RFA has contacted Rear Adm. Mey Dina, Ream naval base’s commander, for more clarification but has not received any reply.

When the two Chinese ships arrived in Ream in December 2023, Cambodia’s minister of defense Tea Seiha said on Facebook that it was “for training our Cambodian Navy crew.” In the following days there was indeed a training course for Cambodian navy staff at Ream, attended by Chinese officers.

However, there were no further reports on any activity of the Chinese ships in either Cambodian or Chinese media.

“We don’t know what the Chinese have been up to [at Ream] because China builds and operates it itself,” said a Cambodian analyst who wished to stay anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic.

“What appears to be evident is that Beijing has begun to station semi-permanent warships there as a means of solidifying its military footprint across Southeast Asia,” said Paul Chambers, a political scientist at the Center of ASEAN Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand. 

“A Chinese foothold in Cambodia offers support to other nearby Chinese military platforms in the South China Sea, Myanmar, Laos, and southern Asia,” Chambers told RFA.

‘Serious concerns’

A spokesperson from the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said in an email to RFA that “the United States and countries in the region have  consistently expressed serious concern about the intent, nature, and scope of construction at Ream naval base, as well as the role the PRC (People’s Republic of China) military is playing in this process and infuture use of the facility.”

“The Cambodian people, neighboring countries, ASEAN, and the region more broadly would benefit from transparency on PRC activities at Ream,” the embassy wrote.

The U.S. State Department last December said it had “serious concerns” about China’s plans for exclusive control over portions of Ream Naval Base, a claim that Cambodia has repeatedly denied.

Top officials in Phnom Penh have maintained that allowing a foreign military to be based in Cambodia would be in contradiction to the country’s constitution.

Ream sailors.JPG
Sailors stand guard at the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, July 26, 2019. (Reuters/Samrang Pring)

Cambodian analyst, Chhan Paul, wrote in the pro-government newspaper Khmer Times that any allegation of a Chinese military base is a “deliberate attempt to malign Cambodia.”

“Cambodia never claims that it won’t allow warships from China to dock at the Ream naval base. Cambodia openly welcomes warships from other friendly countries to dock at the base,” the independent analyst wrote, “Therefore, the mere sighting of a Chinese warship cannot be interpreted to mean anything out of the ordinary.”

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is to visit Cambodia from April 21 to 23 to further consolidate bilateral relations in “wide-ranging areas,” according to a press release from the Cambodian foreign ministry.

Wang Yi is scheduled to call on King Norodom Sihamoni and meet with Prime Minister Hun Manet and his father Hun Sen, who is now the president of the country’s Senate.

Edited by Mike Firn.

Updates with comment from U.S. Embassy.

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