Is China building a military base in Cambodia?
BY DEUTSCHE WELLE
14 JUNE 2022
Last week, redevelopment work funded by a grant aid from China began at Cambodia’s Ream naval base on the South China Sea. During a groundbreaking ceremony, Beijing’s Cambodia envoy, Wang Wentian, said that Chinese-Cambodian military cooperation was a “strong pillar” of an “ironclad partnership.”
For several years, analysts and US government officials have sounded the alarm about a possible Chinese military presence at the Ream naval base, which juts out into the Gulf of Thailand from southern Cambodia. Use of the base could give the Chinese navy expanded access to hotly contested South China Sea, as well as escalate US-China rivalries in the region.
Before the groundbreaking ceremony, a Washington Post report cited unnamed “Western officials” that Phnom Penh will give China “exclusive” access to parts of the naval base and possibly allow Beijing to station its troops there. Phnom Penh has consistently denied reports it will allow access to Chinese troops, which would violate a clause of Cambodia’s constitution barring foreign military bases. At a security dialogue in Singapore last week, Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh said that China won’t have exclusive access and is only assisting in the base’s redevelopment. Banh said the base was being “modernized and upgraded in accordance with Cambodian requirements.”
There have been several reports in recent years about the possibility of Chinese troops in Cambodia. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported on an alleged secret deal to allow Chinese troops to be stationed at the Ream naval base. That same year, a Chinese-built tourism development project in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province drew suspicion that its airport runway and deep-water port could be utilized by the Chinese military.
Cambodia-US relations have also soured as ties with Beijing grow stronger. Phnom Penh has rejected American offers to help fund the redevelopment of the Ream naval base. Cambodia unilaterally suspended joint-military operations with the US in early 2017 and instead began drilling with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Sophal Ear, associate dean and associate professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, told DW the Cambodian government is too in deep with Beijing now to turn back. China is Cambodia’s largest investor and key geopolitical ally. “They agreed to a deal years ago; they need China’s support to stay in power. This is the pound of flesh that must be paid,” Ear said.