After Djibouti and (suspected) Military Base in Solomon Islands, China now Eyes Ream Naval Base in Cambodia
Prof Rajaram Panda

China’s relentless drives towards power projection endeavours and to expand its strategic and maritime imprints look unstoppable. In South Asia, the much talked about String of Pearls by building ports in Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Colombo in Sri Lanka and Sittwe in Myanmar with the intention to choke India from all fronts is all well known. Its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa reflects its intentions to protect and secure its overseas economic interests.[1] China is using private military companies to expand its footprint in Africa and secure its Belt and Road Initiative. In last April China entered into a security pact with the Solomon Islands as part of its efforts to expand its strategic and maritime influence in the South Pacific.[2]

Leaders from the US and Australia visited some of the Pacific island nations to assess the new security dynamics after China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi too visited eight island states to impose a sweeping security and trade agreement with 10 Pacific island nations only to be rebuffed as there was no prior consultation. In the latest of such diplomatic activity, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong visited the Solomon Islands and New Zealand on 17 June to meet with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare amid concerns over the regional impact of a security deal between the Pacific islands nation and China. This was her third visit to the Pacific since being sworn in May 2022. Hidden behind these calculated initiatives is China’s long-term goal of emerging as the world’s only superpower by eclipsing the US and rewrite global rules on its own terms. The sparsely-populated South Pacific islands have become now the next US-China contest.

Closer home, China has been assiduously making efforts to create disunity within the ASEAN by using economic means and negotiating for the development of infrastructure projects and developing ports. There are reports that Cambodia, the current ASEAN Chair, has been lured by Chinese enticement and negotiated to upgrade its largest naval base for the suspected use by Chinese warships and forces on a routine basis.

Amid such allegations, the Chinese ambassador in Cambodia Wang Wentian clarified that the Ream naval base project was not targeted at any third party but at the same time underlined Beijing’s firm opposition to moves by some countries to smear its normal exchanges with Phnom Penh. Wang’s remarks came at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Chinese-funded modernisation of Ream Naval Base in southern Cambodia on 8 June 2022. The ceremony was presided by Cambodia Defence Minister Tea Banh and Wang. Wang said the project is a symbol of mutual respect and equal communication between China and Cambodia.[3]

From the very start of the project, it became controversial not only in the rest of the ASEAN states but beyond because Beijing’s intentions raised suspicion. Wang’s claim of the military cooperation between China and Cambodia as “iron-clad partnership” had no buyers. As with Djibouti, the launch of the Ream Naval Base project with grant aid from China to renovate the port raised concerns in the West and elsewhere that Beijing was seeking a military outpost in the Gulf of Thailand. Though the project is in line with Cambodia’s constitution, which bars foreign military from its territory, it can always be tweaked and projected as developmental assistance.

To allay criticism, Cambodia’s Defence Minister described the project as a “modernization” that includes construction and renovation work on a dry dock, pier, and slipway. Ream Naval Base occupies a strategic position near the southern tip of Cambodia close to the South China Sea and China’s involvement in the project is seen as a sign of Beijing’s expanding military footprint.

The breathless headline of a story on this issue in The Washington Post on 6 June 2022 “China secretly building PLA naval facility in Cambodia” was alarming.[4] This persuaded the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to warn at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore against Beijing’s “aggression and bullying”. The Post story categorically observed that China is secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its military. The base has been a running sore spot in US-Cambodia relations for years. Washington has long suspected it is being converted for use by China as it seeks to buttress its international influence with the network of military outposts.

Cambodia’s Deputy PM Prak Sokhonn rejected the report as groundless accusations in a call with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Both China and Cambodia denied that they are concealing the operation. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the transformation of Ream Naval Base is only to strengthen Cambodian naval forces’ capabilities to uphold maritime territorial sovereignty and crack down on sea crimes. While on a visit to Indonesia soon after the controversy over the naval base broke out, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese labelled the reports “concerning” and urged Beijing to be transparent about its intent and to ensure that its activities support regional security and stability. Cambodia assured Albanese that no foreign military would be given exclusive access to the Ream Base.

Despite the denials, the truism is that Ream Naval Base shall be the second such overseas outpost for China, after Djibouti in the East African country, as part of its strategy to build a network of military facilities around the world in support of its aspirations to become a true global power. With the Ream Naval Base under its control, China shall be in a position to host large naval vessels to the west of the South China Sea. This will help China in its ambition to expand its influence in the region and would strengthen its presence near key Southeast Asian sea lanes.

If one analyses China’s recent foreign policy approach and negotiations with smaller/weaker states on political and economic issues in the past few years, it is not difficult to discern that China is determined to demolish the concept of sole superpower and activate the global trend towards a multi-polar world where aspiring and threatening powers pursue multiple approaches such as coercion, punishment, inducement in diplomatic and military realms to make those countries bend to their interests. China is doing just that.

Indeed, the Ream Naval Base issue with China’s involvement is not recent; it has been going on for quite some time. In July 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had signed a secret agreement with Cambodia granting its military exclusive use of part of the Ream Naval Base near Sihanoukville, once a sleepy port city in the midst of Chinese-fuelled construction frenzy.[5] Both Beijing and Phonm Penh denied the report. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denounced it as “fake news”. China said it is merely helping with military training and logistical equipment. Use of Ream naval base would help China’s military project power across a broad swath of Southeast Asia and also around the globe.

The pact was signed in the spring of 2019 in utter secrecy giving China exclusive rights to part of a Cambodian naval installation not far from a large airport being constructed by a Chinese company. A draft leaked to the US officials would allow China to use the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after that. China would be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships. A Chinese military presence in Ream Naval base shall enable Chinese military operations. This would sharply increase Beijing’s capacity to enforce territorial claims and economic interests in the South China Sea, enabling to extend its influence over the strategically important Malacca Strait. After Djibouti, this shall be the second important outpost in Chinese quest for a global network of military and dual-use sites.[6] China’s first military outpost abroad built in 2017 in the east African nation of Djibouti facilitates operations around the Indian Ocean and Africa. Still, Beijing calls the Djibouti as a naval “logistics support facility”, not a military base.

The naval installation at Ream, surrounded by dense jungle and mangroves and overlooked by a Buddhist temple, covers about 190 acres and includes two facilities built with US funding and used by the Cambodian navy. The facility has a single pier where a dozen patrol craft can dock. In contrast, the facilities built by China shall have two new piers – one for Chinese use and one for Cambodian. China has a plan to dredge further so that large Chinese naval ships can be hosted. The plan also includes Chinese personnel to carry weapons and Cambodian passports. In return, Cambodians were to be permitted to enter the 62-acre Chinese section of the Ream. To expand further footprint, Sihanoukville has attracted large number of Chinese tourists, and millions of dollars of investment, mostly going into casinos and beachfront hotels.

What was more worrying that in July 2019, Cambodia’s defence ministry wrote to the US asking to relocate the US-funded facilities at Ream to allow “further infrastructure development and security enhancement”. Though the US debated for some time if it could persuade Phnom Penh to reverse the decision on Ream, questioning often Cambodia’s human rights record without offering enough carrots that has irked Cambodia. Therefore, under such circumstances the US might not be able to persuade Cambodia to reverse its decision. In the process, Beijing could emerge as the clear winner. The US promise to be the principal security provider has not convinced Phnom Penh. Instead, it has leaned more towards Beijing.

Not satisfied with the Ream base only, China has successfully negotiated with Cambodia to build a new airport at Dara Sakor, about 40 miles northwest of Ream pressurising Cambodia to allow the Chinese military to use the facility. The airport is being built by a private Chinese company with a 99-year lease on a sparsely populated stretch of coastal Cambodia. Even Boeings 747s and Airbus A380s, and even China’s long-range bombers and military transports shall be able to use it as the runway is almost two-mile-long. Chinese warplanes shall be in a position to strike targets in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and elsewhere from this airport.

Beijing has furthered the vulnerability of the authoritarian government of Hun Sen by loans, investment and other economic projects. By choosing this strategy, Beijing has enhanced its diplomatic clout and challenged America’s economic and military influence across the developing world. Despite these developments, Hun Sen is still in the denial mode, saying that such concessions as establishment of foreign military bases are forbidden by the country’s constitution.

Seen from a larger perspective, Chinese presence at Ream naval base and use of Dara Sakor airport facility would considerably clip America’s ability to defend Taiwan if Beijing decides to attack the island. Beijing has rightly gauged the strategic importance of the Ream as it had attracted both the US and Russia (USSR as it was called then) in great power competition during the cold war.

The biggest concern is Cambodia’s position on China could be detrimental to ASEAN interests as its closeness could lead to ASEAN disunity and create friction in the grouping. It is more serious especially in a year when Cambodia is ASEAN chair as it is perceived to be “a pawn” of Beijing. Even if Cambodia denies taking shelter under its constitution, there is no denying the fact that by providing facilities, Cambodia has supported Beijing’s pursuit of naval, air, ground, cyber and space power projection capabilities. Beijing’s strategy to build a global network to further and legitimise its interests would be detrimental to US interests. China has already an edge over the US in the number of vessels: the US navy has 297 battle-force ships, which includes carriers, destroyers, submarines, etc. as against China’s 355 and is projected to have 460 by 2030, according to the Congressional Research Service.

If seen by numbers, it might look that China has an edge over the US in power projection capability. This is not so. China’s numbers could look impressive but its lack of overseas facilities as compared to America’s network of robust overseas facilities just cannot match the US anywhere. Except in Djibouti and suspected base in Solomon Islands, China cannot match the network of military bases the US has around the world. Therefore, the US shall continue to enjoy major military and strategic advantage. Yet, the US worries that if China establishes a base in Ream, its force-projection capability in the region will be enhanced. For Beijing, a base in Ream shall contribute to its military presence throughout Asia and in the South China Sea.

Beijing has the comfort in dealing with Cambodia’s strongman Hun Sen who has been Prime Minister since 1985. Being extremely amenable, Cambodia and China have a long strategic partnership. Within the ASEAN bloc, Myanmar’s case is already troubling. If Cambodia continues to be cosy with Beijing, the drift of the grouping’s disunity could be galling. Preventing this is a huge challenge for the rest of the grouping’s members as well as the US. China’s juggernaut looks unstoppable.

Endnotes :

[1]Rajaram Panda, “Djibouti Military Base is a New Step in China’s Maritime Footprint”, Global Asia (Seoul), Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall 2017, https://www.globalasia.org/v12no3/feature/djibouti-military-base-is-a-new-step-in-chinas-maritime-footprint_rajaram-panda (Accessed on 10 June 2022)
[2]The China-Solomon Islands Security Pact Roils the Region”, Global Asia, Vol. 17, no. 2, June 2022, pp. 65-72, https://www.globalasia.org/v17no2/feature/chinas-security-pact-with-the-solomon-islands-roils-the-region_rajaram-panda
[3]Simone McCarthy, “China and Cambodia break ground at naval base in show of 'iron-clad' relations”, 10 June 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/09/asia/china-cambodia-naval-base-military-intl-hnk (Accessed on 13 June 2022) [4]Ellen Nakashima and Cate Cadell, “China secretly building naval facility in Cambodia”, The Washington Post, 6 June 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/06/06/cambodia-china-navy-base-ream/ (Accessed on 7 June 2022)
[5]Jeremy Page, Gordon Lubold and Rob Taylor, “Deal for Naval Outpost in Cambodia Furthers China’s Quest for Military Network”, The Wall Street Journal, 22 July 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/secret-deal-for-chinese-naval-outpost-in-cambodia-raises-u-s-fears-of-beijings-ambitions-11563732482?mod=e2tw (Accessed on 12 June 2022)
[6] Ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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