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China’s Latest Port Of Call - Cambodia

China is deepening Cambodia's Ream Port to accommodate larger naval vessels. Concerns have been raised about the project's secrecy and rumors that Cambodian leader Hun Sen signed a secret agreement in 2019 allowing Beijing to build a base at the Ream naval base.

Graphic of Shipping and container ships
Credit: Devin Thorne, C4ADS

Cambodia is a small country located in Southeast Asia on the Indochinese mainland. The country’s coastline stretches for about 275 miles along the Gulf of Thailand, a shallow inlet of the South China Sea. Even though the coastline isn't very long, its strategic location and easy access to the Strait of Malacca make it very valuable.

In recent decades, Cambodia has been in the international news for the despotic rule of Pol Pot, his harboring of North Vietnamese guerrillas, and the Khmer Rouge trials. But recently, the tiny Southeast Asian nation has again caught the world’s attention with a piece of equally disturbing news.

The Cambodian government formally announced plans to "expand" and "renovate" the Ream Naval Base with Beijing’s aid. The Washington Post’s report that the Chinese military would also use a part of the base heightened interest in the venture. The government spokesman denied the report and stated it was a "strong accusation," for the country’s Constitution does not permit the nation to host a foreign military power.

But the details of the renovation and the extent of Beijing’s involvement were not forthcoming, raising concerns in international circles. Between 2013 and 2017, China invested about $5.3 billion in Cambodia. The Cambodian economy is valued at $25.81 billion, making Beijing’s involvement seem significantly high. The two countries have been allies for a long time. More than 75,000 Chinese are permanent residents in the country, and Chinese nationals own and operate power plants and offshore mining companies.

Fears have been voiced that Chinese military personnel in Cambodia could be used to protect Chinese citizens or their investments in the country. The U.S. State Department said that a “military presence at Ream could threaten Cambodia’s autonomy and undermine regional security as well.” America has been conducting navigation exercises in the region to maintain the area as international waters and to thwart Chinese ploys to gain control over one of the busiest shipping routes.

The Cambodian naval base is located close to the Malacca Strait. Ships pass through here while navigating between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. China has made no secret of its plans to dominate and control the South China Sea.

Cambodia's Defence Minister Tea Banh (L) and China's Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian (R) take part in a groundbreaking ceremony at the Ream naval base in Preah Sihanouk province on June 8, 2022. (Photo by Pann Bony/AFP) via Getty Images)
Cambodia's Defense Minister Tea Banh (L) and China's Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian (R) take part in a groundbreaking ceremony at the Ream naval base in Preah Sihanouk province on June 8, 2022. (Photo by Pann Bony/AFP) via Getty Images)

Besides, President Xi Jinping’s plans to raise China to superpower status with his dream project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also involve a series of ports spread across the world’s busiest shipping routes. The communist regime officially has only one foreign military base—in the African country of Djibouti.

However, Beijing recently signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. It has leased the deep-water Hambantota International Port in Sri Lanka for the next 99 years instead of debt repayment. In Pakistan, China is developing the Gwadar Port and linking the Xinjiang province to the facility by road.

Potential Chinese Dual-Use Facilities in Asia

Though taken individually, Chinese joint ventures to develop ports and infrastructure in developing Asian nations may look innocent. Still, it also serves Beijing’s ulterior motive to hem in its biggest competitor and rival on the continent, India.

As long as China’s plans to build the Kra Canal linking the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean remain unrealized, Beijing will continue to look for options to solve the 'Malacca Dilemma.' For now, even a port in the Gulf of Thailand is a step forward for the Beijing navy.

According to reports, China is building a ship-repairing facility at Ream and deepening the port to facilitate the entry of larger naval vessels. The secrecy surrounding the project and speculation that Cambodia’s leader, Hun Sen, has signed a secret agreement in 2019 permitting Beijing to establish a base at Ream naval base will remain a cause for concern.

America’s ties with Phnom Penh have been less than smooth due to the country’s grave human rights violations. Washington had sanctioned the country’s Defense Ministry official for conspiring to “profit from activities involved in the construction and updating of Ream Naval Base facilities.”

For now, Cambodia’s military strength is comparable to that of countries like Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, and Guatemala. Most of its naval capability is made up of patrol crafts. It is evident which country will benefit more from the renovated port – China or Cambodia. But there’s a sense in international circles that Cambodia has jeopardized its autonomy; and that China has tilted the balance a little more in the region.

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