Washington, US: China is aiming to spread its presence in Indio-Pacific. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is building a secret naval base in Cambodia as Beijing seeks to expand its influence in the Indio-Pacific region.
The base buildings are at a northern part of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, according to the Washington Post report. This would be China’s second known foreign naval base, the first is in the East African country of Djibouti.
A ceremony marking the expansion of the Ream base is expected to be held on 9 June with the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia in attendance, according to the report.
According to a US official, the expansion plan will provide the PLA “exclusive use of the northern portion of the base, while their presence would remain concealed,” although the claim has been denied by a Chinese official who spoke to the news outlet.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a regular briefing on June 5 that the renovations at the Ream are aimed at strengthening the Cambodian navy’s ability to safeguard maritime territorial integrity and combat maritime crimes. China has described Cambodia as “iron-clad friends” and earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding with its army, though no details were provided about what it entails.
Cambodia has also dismissed concerns China is secretly building a naval facility in the Southeast Asian nation following the publication of the report. Western officials are concerned the countries are concealing moves to establish a Chinese military presence at the Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand.
This follows reports in 2019 that Beijing signed a secret pact to allow its armed forces to exclusively use parts of the base, a charge that has strained relations with the US.
The situation in Cambodia adds to questions over China’s intentions in the region amid existing concerns it could use a security pact with the Solomon Islands to establish a naval base there, which Beijing denies. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also recently visited several Pacific Island nations hoping to secure development deals.
“An exclusive PRC military presence at Ream could threaten Cambodia’s autonomy and undermine regional security,” Chad Roedemeier, the US Embassy spokesperson in Phnom Penh, said. The latest concerns, he said “aligns with the consistent, credible reporting we have seen that the People’s Republic of China is engaged in a significant, ongoing construction project at Ream Naval Base.”
While the Chinese military has denied previous reports regarding Cambodia, the Biden administration in November imposed sanctions against involved companies and individuals, including two senior Cambodian defense officials for corruption related to the base.
The PLA constructed three new buildings at Ream over the course of August and September last year, according to satellite images released by the US think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The Pentagon said in a 2021 report that Cambodia demolished two US-funded facilities at Ream after declining Washington’s offer to pay for the renovation of one of the facilities, “which suggests that Cambodia may have instead accepted assistance from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) to develop the base.”
“The PRC has likely considered a number of countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan, as locations for PLA facilities,” the report said.
The US official said there are consistent patterns of attempts to obfuscate and hide both the end goal as well as the extent of Chinese military involvement. “The key thing here is the [PLA’s] exclusive use of the facility and having a unilateral military base in another country.”