According to several Western officials, the Chinese regime is currently building a secret naval facility in Cambodia to be used exclusively by its People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Though both countries have denied the construction of such a base, and have taken “extraordinary measures to conceal the operation,” the officials told the Washington Post that Beijing is banking on Cambodia being “unwilling or unable to challenge China’s core interests,” and expect the military base to be built on the country’s Ream Naval Base, located on the Gulf of Thailand.
Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base is slated to be the site of a groundbreaking ceremony this week, according to the officials, who spoke to the outlet under the condition of anonymity due to the matter’s high level of sensitivity.
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The establishment of this Chinese base in Cambodia — which is only the second PLA overseas outpost and its first in the strategically significant Indo-Pacific region — is part of “Beijing’s strategy to build a network of military facilities around the world in support of its aspirations to become a true global power,” the officials said.
The PLA base would mark a significant expansion in China’s military access in the Indo-Pacific, where it currently only has one naval base located in the strategically important east African country of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.
Having a facility capable of hosting large naval vessels to the west of the South China Sea would be an important element in China’s ambition to expand its influence and military presence in the region, and would strengthen its presence near key Southeast Asian and African shipping 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 of the unnamed officials 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.”
Another official told the Post that when expansion plans were finalized in 2020, they called for the Chinese military to have “exclusive use of the northern portion of the base, while their presence would remain concealed.” The official added that Beijing was using a combination of “coercion, punishment and inducements in the diplomatic, economic and military realms,” to 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.
Against the Cambodian constitution
For several years now, there have been concerns of China’s intentions to grow its military presence and establish a base in Cambodia. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported a secret deal between Phnom Penh and Beijing, in which then Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, reportedly agreed to allow the PLA access to the base.
Hun, who has faced questions over billions of dollars in infrastructure loans and business deals with China — including through agreements with the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) — denied the report at the time.
“This is the worst ever made-up news against Cambodia,” he told Reuters in 2019. “No such thing could happen because hosting foreign military bases is against the Cambodian constitution.”
U.S. diplomats have repeatedly raised concerns with Cambodia about a Chinese military presence there — especially after Beijing became involved with the construction of an undisclosed base there in 2016. State-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation announced in June 2016 that it had signed a cooperation framework agreement with the Cambodian defense department for a “port expansion project” of an unnamed naval military base.
Beijing, meanwhile, has denied reports of any base to be used by the PLA in Cambodia, and an unmanned Chinese official even confirmed to the Post that the Chinese military would use a “portion” of the Cambodian base, but denied it would have exclusive use. The official added that the area would also be used by scientists, and that the PLA would not be involved in any activities on the Cambodian side.
So far, Cambodian government departments have declined to respond to requests for comment.