U.S. Looks to Check Chinese Advances at Cambodian Naval Base

You can’t lay a string of pearls if you can’t get full access.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh (right) and Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian take part in a groundbreaking ceremony.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh (right) and Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian take part in a groundbreaking ceremony.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh (right) and Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian take part in a groundbreaking ceremony at the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province on June 8. Pann Bony/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is continuing to push Cambodia for more transparency about China’s access to a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand after U.S. officials warned this year that both nations were taking extraordinary measures to conceal their involvement in the project.

For months, Cambodian officials have insisted to their U.S. counterparts that Ream Naval Base will be accessible for multiple nations, not just the Chinese, even while Chinese troops roamed the base in Cambodian fatigues. But with ties between Washington and Phnom Penh warming in recent months, there’s renewed hope at the U.S. Defense Department that Cambodia could honor that request.

Although Chinese construction on the Cambodian base—which appears to be expanding in recent months—has prompted debates in Washington about how important the location will be, China appears to be readying the area to provide access for larger vessels and is pushing other countries off its turf. The Pentagon has assessed that Ream Naval Base will be China’s first overseas base in the Indo-Pacific region, a watershed moment that could allow its navy—already one of the largest in the world—to expand its reach further toward the Indian Ocean.

The Biden administration is continuing to push Cambodia for more transparency about China’s access to a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand after U.S. officials warned this year that both nations were taking extraordinary measures to conceal their involvement in the project.

For months, Cambodian officials have insisted to their U.S. counterparts that Ream Naval Base will be accessible for multiple nations, not just the Chinese, even while Chinese troops roamed the base in Cambodian fatigues. But with ties between Washington and Phnom Penh warming in recent months, there’s renewed hope at the U.S. Defense Department that Cambodia could honor that request.

Although Chinese construction on the Cambodian base—which appears to be expanding in recent months—has prompted debates in Washington about how important the location will be, China appears to be readying the area to provide access for larger vessels and is pushing other countries off its turf. The Pentagon has assessed that Ream Naval Base will be China’s first overseas base in the Indo-Pacific region, a watershed moment that could allow its navy—already one of the largest in the world—to expand its reach further toward the Indian Ocean.

Dredgers have also been spotted off of Ream’s shores, suggesting that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could park larger vessels there. “If [China] is able to leverage such assistance into a presence at Ream Naval Base, it suggests that [China’s] overseas basing strategy has diversified to include military capacity-building efforts,” the Pentagon said in a recent report. But even as Cambodia has pushed other nations off the base, such as Thailand, it has begun to subtly move away from Beijing.

Cambodia has recently sought a more neutral tack, coinciding with its once-a-decade turn at the helm of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which began in January. And with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the country for the ASEAN defense ministerial meeting in late November, Pentagon officials continued to press for transparency.

“We’ve certainly heard what Cambodia has said in terms of more open access to Ream. We hope that they will follow through on that,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “I think what matters here is that arrangements like these are being done in a transparent way.”

The U.S. Defense Department believes China is trying to expand its logistics and basing arrangements overseas that would give the People’s Liberation Army Navy greater reach in the broader Indo-Pacific region beyond a current support base in Djibouti. Chinese naval deployments overseas have advanced by leaps and bounds in the last decade, but one thing the service still lacks are reliable overseas bases—such as those used by the United States and other Western navies—to fuel, water, and feed their ships for longer deployments. For months, U.S. officials have called for the Cambodians to provide more transparency into activities and construction on the base.

In a report released last week, the Pentagon said China has likely considered Cambodia among more than a dozen countries as possible logistics and basing facilities. The concern is that a string of potential bases—even dual-use ports that are nominally for civilian ships—could give the huge Chinese navy the ability to play at will in the broader Indian Ocean area. “A global PLA military logistics network could disrupt U.S. military operations as [China’s] global military objectives evolve,” the report said.

Satellite images provided to Foreign Policy by Maxar show several new buildings under construction, with groundbreaking on the northern portion of the base that China has reportedly been granted exclusive access to.

Satellite images provided to Foreign Policy by Maxar in November show several new buildings in the early stages of construction, with groundbreaking on the northern portion of the base that China has reportedly been granted exclusive access to as well as a possible pier extending midway from the base, which is just miles from the Sihanoukville port that was bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War.

It was not immediately clear what the new buildings would add. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said in an October report that construction had been moving ahead since July and that construction on a new pier had been completed in September. But overall, experts said the Chinese construction had progressed more slowly than expected.

“Ream has progressed very slowly,”  said Aaron Connelly, a Southeast Asia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Some of that may be COVID. Some of that may be American objections. Some of it may be that Cambodians felt like ‘we’re giving China a potential crown jewel in their force posture in the region and we’d better get something for it.’”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held that role for nearly four decades, has more recently tried to tilt toward the West as unfinished high rises dot the Sihanoukville peninsula, which once received billions of dollars in Chinese investment that seemingly dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic, destroying the character of cities that were meaningful to Cambodians. Cambodia has also been trying to dodge international sanctions.

Cambodia’s three-decade-old constitution strictly forbids the development and presence of foreign military bases on its soil, something that could also be driving domestic hostility to a project like Ream. Yet while the Biden administration has continued to push for transparency, the push has yielded little ground. U.S. State Department officials also protested when Cambodia apparently destroyed two U.S.-funded facilities on the base in 2021 to continue Chinese development.

But former officials see Cambodia’s economic interests continuing to shift. Ream itself, which also features Vietnamese buildings on the base, shows that Cambodia is balancing in multiple ways: between the United States and China and also within its own complicated region.

“The Cambodians are at this moment where they’re trying to swim back, at least a little bit, away from China and towards the United States,” said Brian Harding, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace and a former Defense Department official. “So long as Hun Sen is going to remain in power and the economic interests of him and his family are going to be taken care of, he doesn’t want to be completely owned by the Chinese.”

“There’s warming up to the idea of having a slightly close relationship with the United States,” Harding added. Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship “forces a lot of engagement between the two countries.”

Correction, Dec. 6, 2022: This story previously misstated when Cambodia began its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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