Ream Naval Base
If a naval base were built on the Gulf of Thailand, it would allow China to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims much of, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters. If Cambodia does plan to host Chinese military assets at the base — the surrounding waters of which are only deep enough to allow the docking of smaller patrol boats — it would require a significant amount of dredging, but noted that Hun Sen’s government is capable of doing so, given the significant amount of sand it has exported to Singapore in recent years.
The fifth convening of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Cambodia exercise took place in and around Sihanoukville, Cambodia, 27-31 October 2014 Ms. Julie Chung, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, commander, 7th Fleet gave remarks during an opening ceremony held at Ream Naval Base Oct. 27.
“To say that the great seas literally link Cambodia and the United States is no exaggeration. With $2.8 billion worth of goods traveling from Cambodia to the United States in 2013, ocean-going trade is a critical part of our relationship that employment and helps to grow both of our economies. In a similar way, much of what makes Southeast Asia a vibrant center of growth comes from the region’s access to the abundant resources and maritime mobility that long shorelines, thousands of islands, and the waters connecting them all provide,” said Chung.
Thomas echoed Ms. Chung’s remarks, and touched upon the progress our two countries have made together since the Royal Cambodian Navy joined the CARAT exercise series in 2010: “We’ve made steady progress in just a few years, growing CARAT from a basic port visit to a series of training events on Ream Naval Base and culminating this year in a two-day sea phase in the Gulf of Thailand,” said Thomas. “Maritime security challenges in this region are real… No one nation can address these challenges alone, which is why exercises like CARAT are critical to promoting regional stability.”
In May 2019 United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney senior fellow Charles Edel wrote an editorial acknowledging the possibility that China could construct a base in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province based on satellite images showing a Chinese firm rushing to complete a runway capable of supporting military aircraft. Published by Washington-based defense website War on the Rocks, Edel’s editorial noted that while Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has dismissed reports of a possible Chinese base in the country, “his independence seems increasingly doubtful,” given the substantial political and economic support he has received from Beijing since winning an election last year widely viewed as unfree and unfair.
“The logic of Chinese expansion suggests that sooner or later, Beijing will need such a military outpost in Southeast Asia, and Hun Sen’s Cambodia presents especially fertile geographic and political soil,” wrote Edel, a former associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. Edel listed several situations in which Beijing had invested in a country’s critical infrastructure, acquired a significant piece of waterfront territory through a Chinese company, and made assertions that the activity was purely commercial or humanitarian, only to use the site to further its strategic aims.
“The pattern of Chinese actions … indicates the real potential for a similar process to play out in Cambodia,” Edel said. “This is especially true given the growing convergence between the way that Hun Sen defines Cambodian interests and Chinese foreign policy. Hun Sen has helped expand Beijing’s local and regional ambitions in exchange for political support and diplomatic backing from Beijing, closer military cooperation, and more development aid, concessional loans, and investment.”
Edel warned that a Chinese base in Cambodia “would rapidly shift the strategic landscape of Southeast Asia to the detriment of both the United States and its regional allies and partners,” and urged concerned states to “proactively shape the strategic environment by calling attention to what has already occurred, encouraging greater engagement by regional actors and local powers, and approaching the region from a broader perspective.”
Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), noted that allowing Chinese assets to station at the Ream base would potentially provide Beijing with military access to the Gulf of Thailand and the southern portion of the South China Sea. "Projecting power at such a distance from China has proven difficult for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), so adding a military facility near Ream would make sense from Beijing’s perspective," he said, adding that such a move could place Cambodia "in the middle of a serious geopolitical dispute and create concerns within ASEAN."
A 15 November 2018 report by Hong Kong’s Asia Times online news portal cited unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Beijing is building a 45,000 hectare (111,200-acre) naval base on the coast in Koh Kong province — a report that was later cited by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in a letter to Hun Sen. Hun Sen denied that his government would amend the constitution to allow China to build a naval base in the country as “fake news” and part of a “foreign campaign to mislead the public and the international community with the intention of destroying the country’s independence and neutrality.”
While funds to upgrade the facilities were approved in April 2019, Cambodia’s Defense Ministry informed the Pentagon two months later that they were “no longer necessary,” prompting concerns that the ministry might be planning for a Chinese presence at the base in the province, which has seen an influx of Chinese investment in recent years.
In a letter written to Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh in June 2019, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph Felter said that Cambodia’s National Committee for Maritime Security Tactical Headquarters had requested that Washington refurbish a training facility and boat depot, built by the U.S. in 2017, when he toured the Ream Navy Base in January 2019, according to media reports. “The notification letter of 6 June 2019 has been sent throughout the U.S. government and is fueling speculation that this sudden change of policy could indicate larger plans for changes at Ream Naval Base, particularly ones that involve hosting Chinese military assets,” the letter said. Felter demanded “a more detailed explanation” for why the Ministry of Defense had backtracked on the request and what Cambodia’s plans are for the U.S.-funded facilities.
Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh on 01 July 2019 dismissed suspicions that his government had reneged on accepting an offer from the U.S. to upgrade buildings at a naval base in Preah Sihanouk province because it plans to host Chinese military assets at the site. Tea Banh told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia had “never rejected” any offer from the U.S. to repair the buildings at Ream Navy Base and that his ministry welcomes any “honest” assistance.
He claimed that the facilities in question “needed to be relocated” to allow for further development in the region, without providing details about a new location, and dismissed speculation that Cambodia was planning to host Chinese military assets at the base as “fake news,” saying the government would only allow China to develop the site for “tourism” under existing concession agreements. “I have no further comment because we already clearly notified [our U.S. counterparts],” he said, adding that the notification had “nothing to do with a rejection at all.”
“We remain appreciative and welcoming of any assistance, but the facilities in need of repair are no longer in operation, as we will have to relocate them … to a new location. Hence, we remain welcome to any assistance, if [the U.S.] are willing. This has nothing to do with any kind of denial.” Tea Banh said that a new location for facilities was necessary to “meet with our maritime security demands” in order to support “significantly more and better development.”
“The Koh Kong base is another issue and completely different — like heaven and earth — from the development by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) [in the Ream region],” he said. “[The Chinese] are investing in tourism and already received government concessions for such development. The media interpreted and reported it incorrectly. They just wrote things at will based on what they really want the situation to be!”
US embassy spokesperson Emily Zeeberg said in a statement 02 July 2019 regarding a letter from Joseph Felter, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia, to Cambodia’s Ministry of Defence. “Recent developments have fueled speculation about Cambodia’s future plans for Ream Naval Base, including the possible hosting of Chinese military facilities, given the high level of Chinese economic and political influence in Cambodia, is a real concern,” the statement said. “Any steps that weaken Cambodia’s independence or open the door to a foreign military presence in Cambodia would be of serious concern to the United States and could threaten the credibility and centrality of ASEAN,” it said. “We urge Cambodian leadership to maintain its constitutional commitment to have an independent foreign policy and actively protect Cambodia’s independence for future generations.”
Ream Naval Base spokesman Rear Admiral Mey Dina rejected the US embassy’s statement. “Ream Naval Base wishes to reject the statement made by the US embassy that speculated about the future of Chinese military facilities in our Naval Base. We have no Chinese military base here,” he said. “Cambodia’s constitution does not allow foreign troops to build a military base in its territory,” he said “Ream Naval Base maintains our sovereignty and we will continue to strengthen international cooperation with other navies in the region and the world.”
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