PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Chinese naval vessels have become the first ships to dock at a new pier at a Cambodian naval base that the United States and some international security analysts say is destined to serve as a strategic outpost for Beijing’s navy.
The docking of the two ships, which received little publicity, coincided with an official visit to Cambodia this week by China’s top defense official, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission He Weidong.
News of at least two Chinese ships docking at the Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand came out indirectly, through a Facebook post on Sunday by Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Seiha. It said he visited the base to see preparations for Cambodian navy training and to inspect progress on infrastructure construction, but did not mention China by name.
He also posted photos showing Cambodian officials with Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian, and reviewing Chinese sailors. At least two warships could be seen in the photos, one whose gangway identified it as the Chinese navy corvette Wenshan.
Satellite photos taken Sunday by Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press show what appear to be two Chinese warships docked at the base. They correspond to the images shared online by Tea Seiha.
The AP analysis, comparing the ship’s measurements and the images released by the minister, suggest they may both be Type 56 Chinese corvettes.
Controversy over Ream Naval Base initially arose in 2019 when The Wall Street Journal reported that an early draft of a reputed agreement seen by US officials would allow China 30-year use of the base, where it would be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.
Cambodia’s then-Prime Minister Hun Sen denied there was such an agreement. He pointed out that Cambodia’s constitution does not allow foreign military bases to be established on its soil, but said visiting ships from all nations are welcome.
The base is situated on the Gulf of Thailand, adjacent to the South China Sea, where China has aggressively asserted its claim to virtually the entire strategic waterway. The US has refused to recognize China’s sweeping claim and routinely conducts military maneuvers there to reinforce that they are international waters.
A Chinese base in Cambodia could become a chokepoint in the Gulf of Thailand close to the strategically important Malacca Strait.
Basing rights in Cambodia would extend Beijing’s strategic military profile considerably, and tilt the regional balance of power in a way that would pressure adjacent Southeast Asian countries whose security concerns traditionally have been aligned more closely with the United States.
Washington has repeatedly made known its concerns about the base’s intended use. When China and Cambodia broke ground on its naval port expansion project in June last year, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh reiterated Washington’s position that a Chinese “military presence at Ream could threaten Cambodia’s autonomy and undermine regional security.”
“The US and countries in the region have expressed concern about the lack of transparency on the intent, nature, and scope of this project as well as the role the PRC (Chinese) military is playing in its construction and in post-construction use of the facility,” said an embassy statement sent to the AP.
China is Cambodia’s biggest investor and closest political partner. Beijing’s support allows Cambodia to disregard Western concerns about its poor record in human and political rights, and in turn Cambodia generally supports Beijing’s geopolitical positions on issues such as its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Prime Minister Hun Manet, who succeeded his father Hun Sen in the leadership position earlier this year, said in a post Monday on the Telegram messaging platform that he and China’s visiting official He discussed the continuation of military cooperation through agreements between their respective defense ministries on human resource training and demining operations.
Hun Manet also recalled how, when he was serving as Cambodia’s army commander, he took the initiative to strengthen cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces, collaborating on a memorandum of understanding that led to improving unit-to-unit relationships and training exchanges that enhanced the ability of the Cambodian army.
Hun Manet’s first official trip abroad after becoming prime minister was to Beijing, reflecting his country’s warm relations with China.
The Associated Press correspondent Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
Image credits: Ream Naval Base's Facebook page via AP