On June 7, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian was asked to respond to a Washington Post report about China “secretly building a naval facility” in Cambodia.
The Post report focused on a Beijing-financed revamp of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. Citing anonymous Western officials, the story said China will get “exclusive use” of part of the base.
“The establishment of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia – only its second such overseas outpost and its first in the strategically significant Indo-Pacific region – is part of Beijing’s strategy to build a network of military facilities around the world in support of its aspirations to become a true global power,” the Post reported.
Ream is on the Gulf of Thailand near the contested South China Sea, where China has imposed sweeping claims of sovereignty in disregard of international law. The United States and others fear China could use a Cambodian base to enforce those claims and heighten regional tensions.
In response to the question, Zhao referenced Cambodia’s statement about the Post story, saying:
“[Cambodia] said that Cambodia’s constitution does not permit foreign military bases on Cambodian soil and that the renovation of the base serves solely to strengthen the Cambodian naval capacities to protect its maritime integrity and combat maritime crimes.”
That is misleading.
In fact, a Chinese official in Beijing confirmed to the Post that “a portion of the base” would be used by “the Chinese military,” while also hosting scientists and research work. This directly contradicts the assertion that the base is “solely” to serve Cambodia’s navy.
For years, U.S. and other Western officials have raised alarms about a Chinese naval base in Cambodia. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement for Chinese military access to the base in return for Chinese financing.
The Journal also cited anonymous U.S. officials, who said they had seen a draft of the deal and that it would give “China exclusive rights to part of a Cambodian naval installation on the Gulf of Thailand, not far from a large airport now being constructed by a Chinese company.”
According to the draft, the deal “would allow China to use the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after that,” the Journal’s report said. “China would be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.”
The draft also allowed Chinese military personnel “to carry weapons and Cambodian passports and requires Cambodians to get Chinese permission to enter the 62-acre Chinese section of Ream,” the U.S. officials told the Journal.
According to letters between U.S. and Cambodian officials, which the Journal reviewed, Washington’s suspicions grew in June 2019, when Cambodia suddenly turned down U.S. financing to renovate, which Cambodia initially requested.
Reuters, which had also seen the letters, reported in July 2019 that a letter from Joseph Felter, then U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, to the Cambodian defense minister, reflected “concern in Washington about the Chinese military presence in Southeast Asia.”
A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman at the time called the Journal’s revelations “rumors” and said China’s activities at the base were to help the Cambodian navy with training and equipment.
Cambodian officials denied a deal. Prime Minister Hun Sen called the report “the worst-ever made-up news against Cambodia” and cited Cambodia’s constitutional ban on hosting foreign military bases in the country. Hun Sen has issued similar denials over the years.
In a June 7 report on the Ream base, Time noted Hun Sen’s strong ties with Beijing.
“…Cambodia is the ASEAN nation seen as closest to Beijing, which has, for a long time, courted Prime Minister Hun Sen with billions of dollars in murky infrastructure loans and development projects involving close cronies,” Time said.
At the same time, Cambodia-U.S. ties have been deteriorating over U.S. criticism of Hun Sen’s strongman policies, including suppression of political opponents and a retreat from democracy.
Washington started financing the Ream facilities in 2007 as part of a decades-long effort to rebuild ties. The U.S. had bombed the base in 1975 after Beijing-backed forces of the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and seized a U.S. container ship.
In June 2021, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Phnom Penh to seek clarification about the demolitions. She expressed concern about a Chinese military presence.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh then conceded that China was helping with the base overhaul, but he insisted that it came with “no strings attached.”
Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has called on China to explain its plans.
“We’ve been aware of Beijing’s activity at Ream for some time,” Albanese told reporters during a visit to Manila on June 7. “We encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intent and to ensure that its activities support regional security and stability.”
On June 8, Chinese and Cambodian officials broke ground on the renovation project and used the occasion to play down any security threat.
“Please don’t be too worried about this Ream base,” Tea Banh said, speaking in front of a sign saying the work was financed with “grant aid from the People’s Republic of China.”
“This port is too small, and even after upgrading it can’t be a port that would threaten any countries,” he said.