Speedy expansion of Ream naval base includes pier that can accommodate warships

Cambodia says the base, built with Chinese money, won’t be a permanent home to foreign forces.
By RFA Staff

The China-funded Ream naval base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, is expanding at a remarkably fast pace, with a lengthened pier that can accommodate aircraft carriers, new satellite images show.

Satellite photos of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base reveal significant development between Jan. 28, 2023 [left] and June 23, 2023. A new deep-draft pier that could accommodate aircraft carriers is nearly completed in the center-west and an area of reclaimed land in the south has grown to more than three hectares. Credit: Planet Labs

Recent images obtained by Radio Free Asia from the Earth imaging company Planet Labs show significant developments at the project that began just two years ago.

Compared to December last year, the base now has “several sets of sizable buildings including, possibly, administrative offices and barracks” at the center, according to Tom Shugart, Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, who first spotted the developments.

In only six months, an area of reclaimed land in the southern part of the base has tripled in size. 

However, the most striking new feature is a “deep draft pier” connecting to the central area of the base.

Back in February, analysts thought the pier was a temporary one to ferry in construction materials and equipment, but it has now turned out to be a permanent naval pier that could provide access to full-size warships of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.

Satellite images from May this year show the pier has been measurably extended, with the usable pier length estimated to be roughly 300 meters (984 feet).

“It ought to be able to accommodate any ship in the PLA Navy’s fleet, including its new Type 003 aircraft carrier,” Shugart told RFA.

“What we don’t know is to what depth the harbor will be dredged, the scale of other port services such as shore power, and the scope of the logistical support facilities,” he said.

“However, given the length of the pier, I’d expect it to at least support surface combatants such as destroyers and cruisers, and probably logistics support ships,” the analyst told RFA.

Remarkable speed

“It looks like lots of rapid progress is underway on construction of this base,” Tom Shugart said, adding that such projects “seem to move pretty quickly given the relative lack of impediments that the Chinese government faces, compared to projects in democratically-governed states, where similar developments are more likely to be slowed down by lawsuits and environmental concerns, etc.”

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly assigned land to the Ministry of National Defense to develop an air defense command and general headquarters, as well as a naval radar system in Ream National Park, adjacent to the naval base.

The U.S. Department of Defense's China Military Power Report in November 2022 said China “has likely considered Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand,” among other places, as locations for PLA military logistics facilities.

Tea Banh.JPG
Cambodia's Minister of National Defense, General Tea Banh (center) at the 20th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 3, 2023. Credit: Reuters/Caroline Chia

China and Cambodia began developing the Ream Naval Base, in Sihanoukville province on the Gulf of Thailand, with Beijing’s funding, in June 2021.

Thanks to its strategic location, the base would help Beijing boost its power projection not only in Southeast Asia but also the Taiwan Strait. This would be China’s first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and the second in the world after a base in Djibouti.

Phnom Penh has repeatedly denied that China is being given exclusive military access to the base, saying that would be in contradiction to Cambodia’s constitution. 

At the security forum Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore in June, Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh said that Cambodia is being “transparent regarding the developments at Ream.”

He also stressed that it will not be a permanent base for any foreign force.

“We need a proper base so that we have a chance to develop our navy and protect our sovereignty,” Tea Banh told the forum.

“Of course, there are people who say that our base will be open to foreign troops, but this will not happen,” the minister stated.

Edited by Mike Firn.


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