China has made significant progress in constructing a naval base in Cambodia, with reports suggesting that it is close to completing a pier capable of docking an aircraft carrier, as revealed by satellite images obtained from BlackSky, a US commercial imaging company known for monitoring construction activities at the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia.
The images showcase a nearly finished pier that bears a striking resemblance in size and layout to the one employed by the Chinese military at its sole overseas base located in Djibouti. While China and Cambodia have denied any claims that the People’s Liberation Army will have access to this new base, the Pentagon believes the facility is being built to enhance China’s naval power projection capabilities.
As it stands, China boasts a larger navy than the US, but it lacks the widespread international network of bases and logistical facilities required for functioning as a true blue-water navy capable of sailing globally. Gaining access to a base in the Gulf of Thailand would grant China a significant strategic advantage.
The purpose of the base has been a topic of debate within the US government, with speculation on why it would be preferable over a base situated in the South China Sea or on Hainan Island, as a former US intelligence official mentioned. For the past decade, China has constructed numerous military bases on reefs and reclaimed land in the South China Sea, but a base situated in another country could potentially complicate any US military response in the event of a conflict, considering the issue of sovereignty.
Dennis Wilder, a former CIA expert on the Chinese military, highlights that the Ream base would hold the “greatest strategic value if tensions in the South China Sea escalated into a military confrontation.” Moreover, it would extend and enhance China’s naval operational capabilities toward the vital shipping lanes of the Malacca Strait, a significant chokepoint in any conflict with the US and its regional allies.
While Cambodia has maintained that its constitution prohibits foreign military bases on its soil and that the construction is intended to strengthen its own capacity, critics argue that the presence of a Chinese naval base would undoubtedly increase China’s regional influence in Southeast Asia, thus indicating a growing arena for US-China military competition in the developing world. This follows recent agreements between the US and other nations, such as the Philippines, to provide the US military with access to new bases in the region.
The construction of the pier, which is long enough to dock warships, including aircraft carriers, reportedly began in July 2022. Since late 2022, China has been rapidly progressing with the construction, as revealed by images obtained from BlackSky.
Harrison Pretat, an associate head at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, noted that the Ream pier shares similarities with the Djiboutian pier, particularly a 335-meter section capable of docking a Chinese aircraft carrier. Although it is clear that China is involved in the construction, disputes remain regarding the specific purposes of the facilities.
In conclusion, building a naval base by China in Cambodia signifies a significant development in the geopolitical landscape, with potential implications for regional stability and US-China military dynamics. As construction nears completion, the international community will closely monitor the situation, keeping a vigilant eye on how it could impact the balance of power in the region.