The second Chinese overseas base is “fully operational.”

China’s only overseas military base apart from Djibouti is now operational. Satellite images indicate that two Chinese navy ships have been docked at the Cambodian naval base of Ream for more than four months.

A new analysis of satellite images has shown that the two People’s Liberation Army-Navy warships have been docked for long periods at the new dock despite repeated concerns expressed by the United States. The Cambodian base is earmarked for repairs, and the resupply will also have implications for India as it will shorten the time needed to reach its maritime domain.

The two Chinese warships were first spotted in Ream on December 3 in a Facebook post by Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Seiha, who said the ships were there to train with the Cambodian Navy. In January 2024, Radio Free Asia reported that they had abandoned the base before they were seen again in March with footage of Ream in a Nikkei report.

An analysis by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) think tank CSIS indicates that PLA warships never left Cambodia and have had a sustained presence in the country since more than four months ago.

The AMTI evaluated a series of photographs to conclude that the PLAN vessels were visibly docked at the new Ream dock for 93% (85 of 910 dates). The pier was only empty for two brief periods in 2024, from January 15 to 18 and March 29 to 30.

The presence of the Chinese warships comes as US- and Australian-funded facilities along the northwest coast have been devastated and the area paved with concrete.

Construction around the Ream base appears intended to house Chinese personnel. A 2019 memorandum of understanding granted China exclusive access to the base. If the long-term presence of the two warships is any indication, Chinese naval vessels could be expected to be deployed in Ream for long periods.

The second Chinese overseas base is “fully operational.”

“Satellite images also did not show other vessels, including Cambodian vessels, docking at the new dock, which was completed last year (2023) to allow larger warships to dock in the shallow waters of Ream,” the report said from AMTI.

“Although then-Prime Minister Hun Sen had stated that the base’s upgraded facilities would be open to visits by all navies, two Japanese destroyers that called in February were sent to the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port instead of Ream. Ream’s Cambodian ships have continued to gather at the base’s oldest and smallest dock to the south,” the report added.

The facilities will help deploy warships and coast guards to the region in a short period of time, increasing Chinese presence in the area. In addition, more accessible access to Southeast Asia’s shipping routes, such as the vital Strait of Malacca, will improve logistics and intelligence surveillance.

The aircraft carrier-sized Ream Base pier and dry dock facilities will provide the PLA-N with an expanded presence in the Bay of Bengal and affect the balance of power in the region.

According to AMTI, construction of the Ream naval base has progressed by leaps and bounds since the last AMTI review, and some key improvements are nearing completion.

In the southwest, a new quay and dry dock are being constructed which will further expand available berthing capacity and enable maintenance and repair operations for larger vessels. The small Cambodian Navy has no ships in its flotilla that require such extensive facilities. This suggests that the Chinese Navy will have a permanent presence at the base.

To the north and northwest of the base, large clearings have been built with warehouses, administrative complexes and what appear to be housing, with four regulation-sized basketball courts.

In the southwest, more than 60 acres of land (242,812 sq m) have been cleared for new construction in what was previously an overgrown unused area.

The Chinese and Cambodian governments have previously denied reports that Cambodia will allow a Chinese military presence at the Ream naval base in the Gulf of Thailand. The base would significantly increase China’s access to the Indo-Pacific, as the country currently only has one naval base in the East African country of Djibouti.

The second Chinese overseas base is “fully operational.”

China is adding a third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, to its navy. These ships respond to China’s ambition to become the main strategic power in the Asia-Pacific, but countering the United States will be a challenge without a global chain of overseas bases.

Cambodia has confirmed that it received aid for the construction of the facilities, but has stated that they are intended for national defense. The groundbreaking ceremony for the naval base was held in 2022 and was also attended by the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia.

Former Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh said: “The Ream naval base is small. Therefore, we must modernize it to protect our nation, our territory and our sovereignty. “The Ream Naval Base modernization project is an important strategy for the development of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, according to the White Paper of the Ministry of National Defense.”

Cambodia is the ASEAN nation closest to Beijing, which has long courted Prime Minister Hun Sen with billions of dollars in shady loans for infrastructure and development projects involving close associates. The United States and Cambodia have been growing apart. In 2017, the then-US ambassador to Cambodia, William Heidt, stated that the Cambodian government “was not interested in a positive relationship” with the United States.

China’s footprint in Cambodia has only grown since then. According to some reports, Cambodia has repeatedly been the only ASEAN member to scupper joint communiqués on the disputed South China Sea, even sharing their drafts with Chinese officials.

Although the bases of China’s military network abroad are nowhere near those of the United States, Beijing has been trying to exert influence. In 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that US intelligence agencies learned that Beijing was secretly building a military facility at a port near the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi. The Journal reported that construction was halted after the US government redoubled its pressure on the UAE. The current status of the project is unclear.

The Ream base is a security problem for Vietnam. Vietnam does not welcome China approaching its territory since it maintains sovereignty disputes with China in the South China Sea, and general trust between both countries is low.

China’s experience in the “distant seas” began in 2007 with an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s 43rd Task Force arrived in the Horn of Africa last February to begin its 15th year of escorting merchant ships along the turbulent coast of Somalia.

In 2017, the Chinese Navy began operating a support base in Djibouti alongside other foreign militaries, including the US Navy, to monitor approaches to and from the Suez Canal. The facility’s dock, which also features a landing strip, was expanded in 2021 to accommodate large warships, including future aircraft carriers.

Ritu Sharma