According to satellite images, throughout this year, Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base has been expanded, allegedly with the Chinese Communist Party’s help, raising concerns and suspicions worldwide of China’s potential motives.
According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), increased “land reclamation and construction” has been observed at the site to further develop a deep-draft pier, that’s existence was first reported in July. Analysts once believed the pier was temporary for construction materials and equipment, but it has since become permanent, and could potentially allow warships to be docked.
The area cleared is said to be around 30 hectares (75 acres) wide.
“They’ve cleared a lot more land in the southeast part of the base,” said political analyst Tom Shugart, Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.
With the latest images provided by imaging company Planet Labs, the pier seems to be completed.
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“The long side of the new pier is about 330 meters (1,082 feet) [long enough for a carrier], the short side is about 250 meters (820 feet), long enough for every other ship in the PLA Navy (PLAN),” said Shugart.
Shugart also said that, upon a closer look, there are “four fuel tanks that may be under construction on the east side of the base, each about 20 meters (65 feet) in diameter.”
Other structures, including barracks, administration buildings and workshops, may also be at the site.
Located in Preah Sihanouk province on the Gulf of Thailand, the Ream Naval Base was first constructed in June 2021, with funding provided by China. Due to Beijing’s involvement, it’s suspected that the base was made as a checkpoint for PLAN, and would allow the Chinese navy access to the Indian Ocean.
The Ream base is allegedly China’s second foreign naval base, the first being located in Djibouti. The Cambodian government has continued to deny that Beijing has access to the base, claiming that it “would be in contradiction to the country’s constitution.”
“There is clear evidence of a new dry dock being constructed,” maritime blogger H.I. Sutton said, referring to a structure placed on a reclaimed area. He also stated in an article on the Naval News website that the base seems “even more expensive and capable” than previously suggested.
However, Shugart argues against the statement, believing that the structure at the reclaimed area is “too short for PLAN destroyers and larger vessels.”
The Ream base’s size and construction also suggest that it is too large for the smaller Cambodian navy, which lacks “naval vessels over 50 meters (164 feet) in length.”
“There is now little doubt that it is a PLAN overseas base,” Shugart argues.
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Opposition and suspicion
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke out in March against criticisms surrounding the base, claiming that it “is not a threat against anyone.” U.S. officials, on the other hand, continue to prod Cambodia about its transparency about the base’s true purpose.
Cambodian analyst Virak Ou, president of the Future Forum think tank, said “the whole conversation seems to have been driven by the U.S,” adding that while there are concerns from neighboring nations, “more ASEAN voices are needed.”
Dulyapak Preecharush, Associate Professor of Asian Studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok, warned that “Thailand should be aware of this,” saying that the Ream base would bolster Cambodia’s naval capability in a contested area in the Gulf of Thailand, which has plentiful sources of oil and natural gas.
“In the future, this base might pose a maritime security threat to Thailand,” Dulyapak said.
“Chinese strategic influence in Cambodia and the Gulf of Thailand can stimulate the U.S. to increase its strategic engagement with Thailand for counterweighting China, resulting in Thailand’s strategic adaptation between these major powers,” Dulyapak said.