Chinese Warships Arrive at Expanded Cambodian Naval Base: Should US Be Concerned?

Chinese Warships Arrive at Expanded Cambodian Naval Base: Should US Be Concerned?

Chinese warships have made their inaugural docking at Cambodia's Ream Naval Base, currently undergoing a Chinese-funded expansion The United States expresses concerns over the potential implications for China's expanding overseas military presence

For the first time, Chinese warships have arrived at Cambodias Ream Naval Base, which is currently being upgraded with funding from China. This upgrade has raised concerns from the United States about the possible expansion of Chinas military presence overseas. Cambodias Defense Minister Tea Seiha, accompanied by his father and predecessor Tea Banh, visited the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) Navy warships at the Ream port on Sunday, as reported on the officials Facebook page.

The post didn't mention the Chinese military directly, but it featured photos of two PLA Navy corvettes docked together. On board one of the corvettes, labeled as the "Wenshan," Tea Banh inspected a line of Chinese naval officers. The post stated that the ships are getting ready to train the Cambodian navy.

Additional images included in the article depict the father and son examining the construction of infrastructure on the site and reviewing the project's design plan. According to Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, this is the first instance of PLA Navy ships docking at the port, as previously the port was only suitable for smaller patrol crafts of the Cambodian Navy, as indicated by public records.

"It's a sign that Ream is close to being finished. Although there's still more work to be done, it's now big enough to fit a foreign navy ship," he stated.

John Bradford, the executive director of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, commented that it's not unexpected that Chinese ships were the initial visitors to the improved base.

He stated, "Considering the facilities were financed by the Chinese and China is a strong ally of Cambodia." The arrival of Chinese warships happened at the same time as a visit from a high-ranking Chinese general to Phnom Penh, where he praised the relationship between China and Cambodia as "unbreakable friends."

Vice Chairman of China's Central Military Commission, He Weidong, informed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet that the two countries' military cooperation has involved high-level exchanges, joint drills, and personnel training. Hun expressed gratitude for China's support in modernizing the Cambodian army, following his succession of his father earlier in the summer. This statement was posted on the Chinese Defense Ministry's website.

The Chinese general met with Cambodian Defense Minister Tea to discuss bilateral relations, military cooperation, and international issues of common interest, according to the readout. The visiting PLA Navy warships were not mentioned in the report. CNN has contacted China's Ministry of Defense for a comment.

A US State Department spokesperson stated that Washington was keeping a close watch on the reports of the Chinese warships, as reported by Reuters. "While we have no comment on this specific development, we have serious concerns about the PRC's plans for exclusive control over portions of Ream Naval Base," the official told Reuters, referring to China by its official name, the People's Republic of China.

Chinese Warships Arrive at Expanded Cambodian Naval Base: Should US Be Concerned?

Tea Banh, former Cambodian Defense Minister, reviews Chinese naval officers on board a Chinese corvette at the Ream Naval Base.

Cambodia Defense Minister

Heightened concerns

The recent arrival of Chinese navy vessels at the Ream Naval Base, located strategically near the southern tip of Cambodia and close to the South China Sea, is expected to heighten ongoing apprehensions among US officials regarding China's intentions to establish a military presence in the Gulf of Thailand.

In June last year, concerns were raised when Chinese and Cambodian officials oversaw a ground-breaking ceremony for the renovation of the port using grant aid from China. Despite repeated denials from Cambodian officials that the facility would be used as a naval base by China, and insistence that the project aligns with Cambodia's constitution prohibiting foreign military bases on its territory, Chinese officials have labeled the base as an "aid project" to boost Cambodia's navy, dismissing any opposing claims as "hype" with "ulterior motives."

The Chinese-funded expansion at Ream is causing concern for the US, especially with the demolition of a US-funded facility. This development symbolizes Cambodia's strengthening relationship with Beijing and distancing from Washington, as noted by Bradford at the Yokosuka Council. The presence of Chinese navy ships has also sparked new concerns for some.

"The presence of these Chinese warships at Ream reveals China's previously hidden military objectives, signifying a significant shift in China's regional defense strategy. Ignoring China's growing military presence is simply self-deception," stated Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.

Chinese Warships Arrive at Expanded Cambodian Naval Base: Should US Be Concerned?

From left, Chinese People's Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti and Ream Naval Base in Cambodia, July 16, 2023.


Is China extending its naval reach beyond its region now that it boasts the world's largest navy? Singleton, who previously analyzed China's increasing efforts to secure overseas port access, suggested that China's establishment at the Ream Naval Base is a strategic move to disrupt America's global military strategy.

To exert diplomatic pressure on select countries along major maritime routes and limit U.S. basing access, Beijing is building closer military ties and economic dependencies. This could complicate efforts to support Taiwan's defense in the event of a Chinese invasion of the self-ruled island, claimed by Beijing as its own, the official stated.

Ream, Beijing's only military base overseas located in Djibouti in East Africa, "represents more than just a cost-effective extension of China's defense perimeter. It signifies a calculated and assertive repositioning with significant implications for Washington and its allies."

The level of access that the PLA has at Ream may differ from its base in Djibouti, where Chinese troops can be permanently stationed at onshore facilities, according to other experts. This type of arrangement would violate Cambodia's constitution, according to Koh at the RSIS. Koh also mentioned that there are various access arrangements that fall short of a real base agreement, such as allocating certain piers solely for Chinese navy use or ensuring the PLA Navy can be accommodated during its visits.

"I believe there is an exaggeration of the idea that it is a Chinese military base. I disagree with that notion," he stated.

Additionally, Cambodia seems to be willing to permit other foreign delegations to visit Ream, which is viewed as a way to dispel allegations that it is providing exclusive access to the Chinese military. In March, a Japanese navy delegation also visited the naval base.

Military implications

Koh stated that it is not easy to conclude that the base is exclusively arranged for Chinese access until it is determined whether the Cambodians will permit only the Chinese navy to dock, or if they will also allow other foreign navies to do so.

However, while Ream may not be utilized as a permanent base for Chinese forces, having regular access to it could impact military operations regarding the South China Sea dispute between China and Southeast Asian claimants.

Beijing asserts its "indisputable sovereignty" over nearly the entire South China Sea, including most of the islands and sandbars within it, despite competing claims from the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan.

"Ream could offer PLAN forces a new avenue for attack and resupply in the event of a conflict in the South China Sea. Additionally, bases on the Asian mainland may be better equipped for resupply and more resilient compared to those on remote reclaimed features," analyst Bradford stated. However, he also mentioned that the facilities in Cambodia would not significantly impact a struggle in the South China Sea.

Ream is further away from the Spratly Islands than the major PLA bases on Hainan island are, he explained. This would mean that any Chinese forces operating from Cambodia would have to go through Vietnam or take a longer route in order to reach their destination, making them more susceptible to interception.

Ream also provides the Chinese navy with closer access to the southern South China Sea, a crucial factor in China's expanding presence in Indonesia's Natuna Sea and Malaysia's Economic Exclusion Zone, according to Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center.

"The new naval base goes beyond Cambodia's current needs, its importance lies in its geo-strategic implications rather than purely military. It underscores the Sino-Cambodian defense partnership and contributes to Vietnam's worries about China's encirclement," noted Schuster.

CNNs Simone McCarthy, Brad Lendon and Beijing bureau contributed reporting.