Construction of a Chinese naval installation on the Cambodian coast has been an open secret for some time now. But following a report in the Washington Post earlier this week, Beijing and Phnom Penh are under growing scrutiny. The report stated that the base will be used exclusively by Chinese forces and will be the first overseas Chinese military installation in the Indo-Pacific region. Chinese and Cambodian officials have denied the report, with the host nation’s government claiming the construction now underway is a joint Chinese-Cambodian expansion of the Ream Naval Base. Chief government spokesman Phay Siphan denied reports that part of the base will be used solely by the Chinese military. The spokesman said the role of the facility being built at Ream is ship repair.
US officials admitted that monitoring activity around Ream has been a priority for some time. The activity is in line with Chinese plans and ambitions in and around the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. A sizeable Chinese military presence in Cambodia could undermine Cambodian sovereignty and autonomy, and undermine stability in the region. Strategically speaking, a PLAAN base on the Gulf of Thailand will extend the reach of Chinese surveillance and military power to vital shipping lanes and chokepoints in the region. It also moves China’s naval and air power nearer to the Indian Ocean.
China is hedging its bets on the chance that the region will be unable or unwilling to challenge its designs. Over the weekend, a Chinese government official in Beijing even went as far as to confirm to the WaPo that parts of the base will be used by the Chinese military. Cambodia is not the only nation that Beijing is influencing or quietly strong-arming for basing rights and it will not be the last.