Chinese Deployment to Ream Naval Base Not Permanent, Cambodia Says

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Chinese Deployment to Ream Naval Base Not Permanent, Cambodia Says

Two Chinese navy corvettes have been moored at the base’s new China-built pier since December.

Chinese Deployment to Ream Naval Base Not Permanent, Cambodia Says

Cambodian navy crew stand on a patrol boat at the Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, southwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 26, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File

Cambodia’s government has denied that the months-long presence of two Chinese warships at its main naval base constitutes a permanent deployment, saying that they are in the country for training and military exercises.

In comments given to The Associated Press, Defense Ministry spokesperson Gen. Chhum Socheat said that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships are in Cambodia for training purposes and are “not staying permanently.”

He said that the two Chinese corvettes were due to take part in a joint Cambodian-Chinese military exercise later this month. The vessels have also been involved in training Cambodian sailors, he added.

“The ships are docked for the training period only, they are not staying permanently,” Socheat said. “We have been clear that Cambodia is not allowing any foreign forces to be deployed on its territory.”

The two ships first docked at the base in December, coinciding with an official visit by China’s top defense official He Weidong, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. According to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), satellite images show that they have been there ever since, barring two brief periods from January 15-18 and March 29-30.

For several years now, U.S. policymakers and think tankers have been seized with reports about the establishment of a possible Chinese military presence at Ream Naval Base. China has funded an extensive expansion and refurbishment of the base, and some analysts claim that this could serve as a new permanent outpost for the PLAN.

Cambodia’s government has repeatedly denied that China has been permitted to establish a permanent military presence in the country, with officials saying that the country’s Constitution barred the government from allowing a foreign military presence on Cambodian soil.

In his comments to the AP, Socheat repeated this claim, stating that the government was “fully following” the constitution. In addition to training and military exercises, he said that the PLAN vessels were “testing” the new pier at Ream, which was completed last year in order to enable larger warships to dock in the shallow waters around the base, and that they were on show for the Royal Cambodian Navy, which was considering purchasing similar warships at some point in the future.

Ream Naval Base has been the subject of close attention since 2019, when the Wall Street Journal reported that China had signed a secret agreement to allow its military to use the base, citing unnamed U.S. and allied officials, prompting a vociferous denial from both Phnom Penh and Beijing. The Washington Post then reported in mid-2022 that China is “secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its military.” Again citing unnamed Western officials, the report claimed that both countries were “taking extraordinary measures to conceal the operation.”

The lingering presence of the Chinese warships since December has appeared to lend weight to the suggestion that China is seeking to establish a permanent military presence, with CSIS analysts asking last month whether “that presence has now, in fact, been established.”

In its conclusions about the current Chinese presence at Ream, the think tank said that it was too soon to declare the base a Chinese facility – though sooner or later the situation would become clear.

“At some point, the two PLAN corvettes that have been at Ream since December will leave,” it stated. “Whether they are replaced with other Chinese ships, how long those ships stay, and whether other navies are afforded the same opportunities will all speak volumes about the true nature of the relationship between China’s navy and Ream.”