- Cambodia appears to have continued construction at its Ream naval base in August and September.
- The work worries the US government, which suspects it may be preparation for China’s military to use the base.
- Cambodia’s government has said little about the intent of the work, reflecting frustration with US policy there.
Cambodia continued construction work at its Ream naval base in August and September, advancing projects that the US suspects could support a Chinese military presence in a strategically valuable corner of Southeast Asia.
Satellite photos taken by Maxar and Planet Labs and published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative show that two new buildings were built on the north end of the base between August 9 and 22. The coast alongside the buildings was also cleared of vegetation.
In late August, workers began building a road from the base’s southeast gate to the area on the coast where the new buildings are located.
August also saw Cambodia begin clearing a path branching off the new roadway toward area that was cleared and surrounded by a fence in 2019. It’s unclear what that fenced-in area will be used for, according to the AMTI, which is part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Work on the new road was ongoing as of early October and appears to be headed toward a new building on the coast.
A line of trees was cleared before construction of that building, which at 40 feet by 26 feet is smaller than the other new buildings.
South of that new building, another line of trees on the coast has been cleared and a new channel has been dug.
That work took place near the former site of the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security, a US-funded building that was officially opened in 2012 and unexpectedly demolished in September 2020.
Another US-funded building nearby, the Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat maintenance facility, completed in 2017, was torn down in October 2020.
The demolition and construction have stoked concerns about a 2019 report of a secret deal with China allowing Beijing to station military personnel, store weapons, and dock warships at Ream.
Cambodian officials admit China is backing work at the base, including dredging to make the port deeper, but say there is no such deal and that China won’t have a military presence there.
The two buildings built in August are next to two buildings built between April and May, which were finished days before Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman arrived on an official visit.
While there, Sherman “expressed serious concerns” about China’s “military presence and construction of facilities” at the base.
After the visit, a State Department spokesperson told Insider there was “substantial open-source evidence” that China is working on “a major renovation project” at Ream, “which credible reports suggest will include an area under the exclusive control” of China’s military.
The lack of transparency, shifting explanations, and rapid construction “fuel suspicions that the upgrades there are intended for China’s benefit as much as Cambodia’s,” ATMI said earlier this year.
The situation at Ream reflects Cambodian frustration with the US.
Washington has emphasized values such as human rights in its dealings with Phnom Penh, in contrast to its embrace of Vietnam and Thailand, where US strategic interests appear to outweigh those values, according to Charles Dunst, an associate with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice.
This has “alienated” Prime Minister Hun Sen, who once partnered with the US on counterterrorism and other issues “but resents being treated differently than his neighbors,” Dunst told Insider.
China has offered Sen, in power since 1985, strong political support and extensive aid and investment; some observers have described Sen as an authoritarian in the one-party state. In return, “China gets economic access to the country, political backing … and, increasingly, military cooperation, as evinced by Chinese construction and potential control over Ream,” Dunst said.
The State Department did not immediately respond on Wednesday when asked about the latest construction, but a US embassy spokesman there said Cambodia “has not been fully transparent about the intent, nature, and scope of this project” or about the involvement of China’s military.
“The Cambodian people deserve to know more about the project at Ream and to have a say in this type of military agreement,” the spokesman said.
A military outpost in Cambodia wouldn’t give Beijing new power-projection capabilities in the South China Sea, and the maritime geography around Ream likely limits what kind of naval forces can operate there.
But military access to Ream or nearby sites could allow China to project power, especially air power, into the Gulf of Thailand and waterways connecting the South China Sea and Indian Ocean in ways it hasn’t been able to before.
Such access would also add to China’s “military presence in the Parcel and Spratly Islands to draw a perimeter around mainland Southeast Asia,” which could allow Beijing to counter US efforts to reach Taiwan with support in a crisis, Dunst said.
“Cambodia, once singled out as a strategically unimportant country that Washington could target with a values-based foreign policy, has become strategically important once again,” Dunst told Insider.