China secretly building PLA naval facility in Cambodia, Western officials say


HR King
May 29, 2001
China is secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its military, with both countries denying that is the case and taking extraordinary measures to conceal the operation, Western officials said.
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The military presence will be on the northern portion of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, which is slated to be the site of a groundbreaking ceremony this week, according to the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
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 officials said.
China’s only other foreign military base right now is a naval facility in the East African country of Djibouti. Having a facility capable of hosting large naval vessels to the west of the South China Sea would be an important element of China’s ambition to expand its influence in the region and would strengthen its presence near key Southeast Asian sea lanes, officials and analysts said.

“We assess that the Indo-Pacific is an important piece for China’s leaders, who see the Indo-Pacific as China’s rightful and historic sphere of influence,” one Western official said. “They view China’s rise there as part of a global trend toward a multipolar world where major powers more forcefully assert their interests in their perceived sphere of influence.”
Beijing, the official said, is banking on the region being “unwilling or unable to challenge China’s core interests,” and through a combination of coercion, punishment and inducements in the diplomatic, economic and military realms, believes it can get countries to bend to its interests. “Essentially, China wants to become so powerful that the region will give in to China’s leadership rather than face the consequences [for not doing so],” the official said.
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The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that China had signed a secret agreement to allow its military to use the base, citing U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter. Beijing and Phnom Penh denied the report, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denouncing it as “fake news.” A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman at the time also denounced what it called “rumors” and said China had merely been helping with military training and logistical equipment.
Over the weekend, however, a Chinese official in Beijing confirmed to The Washington Post that “a portion of the base” will be used by “the Chinese military.” The official denied it was for “exclusive” use by the military, saying that scientists would also use the facility. The official added that the Chinese are not involved in any activities on the Cambodian portion of the base.
The official said the groundbreaking, scheduled for Thursday, was taking place and that Chinese officials would attend. The Chinese ambassador to Cambodia is expected to be present.
Asked for comment, the Cambodian Embassy in Washington said in a statement that it “strongly disagrees with the content and meaning of the report as it is a baseless accusation motivated to negatively frame Cambodia’s image.” It added that Cambodia “firmly adheres” to the nation’s constitution, which does not permit foreign military bases or presence on Cambodian soil. “The renovation of the base serves solely to strengthen the Cambodian naval capacities to protect its maritime integrity and combat maritime crimes including illegal fishing,” the statement said.
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

The Western officials said they expect there will be an acknowledgment at the ceremony of Chinese involvement in financing and construction of the expansion of Ream Naval Base, but not of plans for its use by the People’s Liberation Army. The expansion plans were finalized in 2020, and, significantly, called for the Chinese military to have “exclusive use of the northern portion of the base, while their presence would remain concealed,” a second official said.
The two governments have taken pains to mask the presence of the Chinese military at Ream, the official said. For instance, foreign delegations visiting the base are permitted access only to preapproved locations. During these visits, Chinese military personnel at the base wear uniforms similar to their Cambodian counterparts’ or no uniform at all to avoid suspicion from outside observers, the official said. When Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited the base during a trip to the region last year, her movements were “very heavily circumscribed,” the official said.
While she was in Cambodia, Sherman sought clarification over Cambodia’s razing in 2020 of two U.S.-funded facilities on Ream Naval Base, according to a State Department news release. The demolition took place after Cambodia declined a U.S. offer to pay to renovate one of them, according to a Pentagon report on Chinese military developments last year. That move, the report said, “suggests that Cambodia may have instead accepted assistance from the [People’s Republic of China] to develop the base.”
“What we’ve seen is over time is a very clear and consistent pattern of trying to obfuscate and hide both the end goal as well as the extent of Chinese military involvement,” the second official said. “The key thing here is the [PLA’s] exclusive use of the facility and having a unilateral military base in another country.”



HR Legend
Mar 20, 2005
Not really our problem, but Thailand isn’t going to be happy.

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