A Cambodian naval base being constructed with the assistance of China will include a portion for the exclusive use of the Chinese military, according to a report in the Washington Post.
The Chinese and Cambodian governments have previously denied reports that Cambodia will allow a Chinese military presence at the Ream naval base on the Gulf of Thailand
Such a presence would mark a significant expansion in China’s military access in the Indo-Pacific, where it currently only has one naval base, in the east African country of Djibouti.
Citing unnamed western and Chinese officials, the Post reported on Tuesday that the base will host the Chinese military in its northern section. One western official told the paper that expansion plans finalised in 2020 called for the Chinese military to have “exclusive use of the northern portion of the base, while their presence would remain concealed”.
The Post said a Beijing official confirmed the Chinese military would use a “portion” of the base but denied it would have exclusive use. The official said the area would also be used by scientists, and that China was not involved in any activities on the Cambodian portion of the base.
Sam Roggeveen, the director of the Lowy Institute’s international security programme, said the new information, and particularly the apparent confirmation by a Beijing official, “strengthens the case that this is actually happening”.
“It’s fairly early days, so we don’t know what the capacity of the facility will be,” Roggeveen said. “Its practical value [to Beijing] is that it would allow China to deploy more readily its warships and coastguard vessels around the region, and to simply have a bit more presence, where once it would need to sail very long distances.
“It’s a kind of microcosm really of the broader trend in the region, which is that strategic and military power is shifting from the US and towards China. China will want to become the leading strategic power in Asia, it may even want to become the domination power in Asia. You can’t do that without pushing the US out and having foreign bases around the area.”
The Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, who was visiting Indonesia on Tuesday, said he was concerned about the reports and called on the Chinese government to be open about its intentions.
“We are in regular contact with the Cambodian government and we have been consistently assured that no foreign military will be granted exclusive access at Ream,” Albanese told reporters in Makassar. “We’ve been aware of Beijing’s activity at Ream for some time. We encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intent and to ensure that its activities support regional security and stability.”
For some years the US has alleged China intends to have a military presence at the base. In 2019 the Wall Street Journal reported a secret deal between Phnom Penh and Beijing, in which the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, reportedly agreed to give China access to the base.
Hun, who has faced questions over billions of dollars in infrastructure loans and business deals with China – including through the belt and road initiative – denied the report at the time.
“This is the worst ever made-up news against Cambodia,” he told the pro-government Fresh News at the time. “No such thing could happen because hosting foreign military bases is against the Cambodian constitution.”
US diplomats have repeatedly raised concerns with Cambodia about a Chinese military presence at the base. It is known that China has been involved with the works. In June 2016 state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation announced it had signed a cooperation framework agreement with the Cambodian defence department for a “port expansion project” of an unnamed naval military base.
In October 2020, a senior Cambodian naval official told Nikkei Asia that China was supporting a project to expand the port and develop a ship repair facility. In June 2021, Cambodia’s defence minister, Tea Banh, confirmed to local media that China was helping with the construction at Ream, but it came “with no strings attached”.
“We want to develop a suitable place … Cambodia alone can’t do it. It is moderately costly as well, but I don’t know how much,” he said, according to Voice of America.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the Ream base is scheduled for Thursday, the Washington Post reported, with Chinese officials including the ambassador to Cambodia expected to attend.
Cambodian government departments did not respond to requests for comment. Chinese officials were expected to address the media on Tuesday afternoon at a regular press conference.