Satellite photos show more construction at military base where US has 'serious concerns' about China's presence

·5 min read
Cambodia Ream naval base
Cambodian navy personnel on a jetty at Ream naval base during a government-led media tour, July 26, 2019. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images
  • Cambodia appears to have continued construction at its Ream naval base in August and September.

  • The work worries the US government, which suspects it may be preparation for China's military to use the base.

  • Cambodia's government has said little about the intent of the work, reflecting frustration with US policy there.

Cambodia continued construction work at its Ream naval base in August and September, advancing projects that the US suspects could support a Chinese military presence in a strategically valuable corner of Southeast Asia.

Satellite photos taken by Maxar and Planet Labs and published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative show that two new buildings were built on the north end of the base between August 9 and 22. The coast alongside the buildings was also cleared of vegetation.

AMTI Ream Naval Base satellite photo
Two new buildings constructed at Ream, seen on October 3, 2021. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar

In late August, workers began building a road from the base's southeast gate to the area on the coast where the new buildings are located.

August also saw Cambodia begin clearing a path branching off the new roadway toward area that was cleared and surrounded by a fence in 2019. It's unclear what that fenced-in area will be used for, according to the AMTI, which is part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

AMTI Ream Naval Base satellite photo
New road clearing at Ream Naval Base, seen on October 3, 2021. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar

Work on the new road was ongoing as of early October and appears to be headed toward a new building on the coast.

A line of trees was cleared before construction of that building, which at 40 feet by 26 feet is smaller than the other new buildings.

AMTI Ream Naval Base satellite photo
New construction at Ream Naval Base, seen on October 3, 2021. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar

South of that new building, another line of trees on the coast has been cleared and a new channel has been dug.

That work took place near the former site of the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security, a US-funded building that was officially opened in 2012 and unexpectedly demolished in September 2020.

Another US-funded building nearby, the Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat maintenance facility, completed in 2017, was torn down in October 2020.

AMTI Ream Naval Base satellite photo
New construction at Ream Naval Base, seen on October 3, 2021. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar

The demolition and construction have stoked concerns about a 2019 report of a secret deal with China allowing Beijing to station military personnel, store weapons, and dock warships at Ream.

Cambodian officials admit China is backing work at the base, including dredging to make the port deeper, but say there is no such deal and that China won't have a military presence there.

The lack of transparency, shifting explanations, and rapid construction "fuel suspicions that the upgrades there are intended for China's benefit as much as Cambodia's," ATMI said earlier this year.

The two buildings built in August are next to two buildings built between April and May, which were finished days before Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman arrived on an official visit.

While there, Sherman "expressed serious concerns" about China's "military presence and construction of facilities" at the base.

A State Department spokesperson told Insider this week that the US is "aware of consistent, credible reporting that the People's Republic of China is engaged in a significant, ongoing construction project at Ream Naval Base" and that an exclusive Chinese presence there "would threaten Cambodia's autonomy and undermine regional security."

Cambodia Ream naval base
The US-built Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat Ramp and Boat Maintenance Facility at Ream Naval Base in July 2017. Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific/Facebook

The situation at Ream reflects Cambodian frustration with the US.

Washington has emphasized values such as human rights in its dealings with Phnom Penh, in contrast to its embrace of Vietnam and Thailand, where US strategic interests appear to outweigh those values, according to Charles Dunst, an associate with Eurasia Group's Global Macro practice.

This has "alienated" Prime Minister Hun Sen, who once partnered with the US on counterterrorism and other issues "but resents being treated differently than his neighbors," Dunst told Insider.

China has offered Sen - who has held power since 1985 and has been called an authoritarian in the one-party state - strong political support and extensive aid and investment. In return, "China gets economic access to the country, political backing ... and, increasingly, military cooperation, as evinced by Chinese construction and potential control over Ream," Dunst said.

The State Department spokesperson told Insider that "full transparency on this arrangement" would benefit Cambodians, neighboring countries, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Cambodia is a part, "regarding the intent, nature, and scope of this project, which may carry long-term implications for the region."

Cambodia Ream naval base
Cambodian naval personnel with journalists during a government-led media tour of the Ream naval base, July 26, 2019. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images

A military outpost in Cambodia wouldn't give Beijing new power-projection capabilities in the South China Sea, and the maritime geography around Ream likely limits what kind of naval forces can operate there.

But military access to Ream or nearby sites could allow China to project power, especially air power, into the Gulf of Thailand and waterways connecting the South China Sea and Indian Ocean in ways it hasn't been able to before.

Such access would also add to China's "military presence in the Parcel and Spratly Islands to draw a perimeter around mainland Southeast Asia," which could allow Beijing to counter US efforts to reach Taiwan with support in a crisis, Dunst said.

"Cambodia, once singled out as a strategically unimportant country that Washington could target with a values-based foreign policy, has become strategically important once again," Dunst told Insider.

This story has been updated with comments from a State Department spokesman.

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