A Cambodian naval officer salutes at the Ream Naval Base in a file photo. Image: Twitter

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a report on October 2 detailing the apparent demolition of a US-funded and constructed naval facility at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. The base, which opens on to the Gulf of Thailand, is the Cambodian Royal Navy’s largest.

The demolition, exposed in satellite imagery in the ATMI report, comes after Cambodia refused Washington’s offer to repair the US-funded facilities after previously requesting and receiving assistance, most recently in April 2019. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government later informed the US that it no longer required the funding.

It also comes amid reports that China has secured a 30-year lease of the base, which if true would potentially give China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy a new southern flank in the South China Sea disputes and improve its ability to respond to potential contingencies in the Strait of Malacca, through which an estimated 80% of China’s fuel imports travel. The Cambodian government has denied the reports.

The building in question, the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security (NCMS), officially inaugurated in 2012, appears to have been demolished last month. Another US-built facility on the base, the Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) Ramp and Boat Maintenance Facility, inaugurated in 2017, is notably still standing.

The Wall Street Journal reported last July on a reputed early draft of what it termed a “secret deal” between China and Cambodia which would grant the PLA Navy exclusive rights to dock at the Ream Naval Base. The same report said Chinese personnel would be permitted to bear arms and carry Cambodian passports in a 62-acre exclusive Chinese section of the base’s area.

The secret agreement also was purported to contain provisions to relocate the exact US-funded building and facility in question, thus giving new credence to the idea that the early draft was authentic despite Cambodian government denials. The NCMS reportedly inaugurated a new headquarters in May, according to Facebook posts.

Chinese and Cambodian spokespeople have consistently denied the existence of a secret agreement. Hun Sen, citing Cambodian constitution provisions that prohibit the hosting of foreign militaries, called the WSJ and other reports “fake news” and “the worst-ever made-up news against Cambodia” last summer and again this past July.

The Cambodian premier likewise rebuked a letter sent by US Vice President Mike Pence on the issue, forcefully vowing in nationalistic terms that Cambodia will never play host to a foreign military.

Yet the satellite imagery published by ATMI-CSIS would seem to indicate that last July’s report was at least partially accurate on the alleged “secret agreement.”

Hun Sen has plenty of motivation to do China’s bidding. His government is under US and European Union fire for democratic backtracking after dissolving the political opposition on unproven grounds it was conspiring with the US to overthrow the government and holding virtually uncontested elections that have made Cambodia into a de facto one-party state, similar to China’s authoritarian system.

Given his growing economic and political dependence on China to maintain his decades-old strongman rule, Hun Sen’s capacity for independent action on issues Beijing likely sees as crucial to its national security is now very much in doubt, analysts and observers say.

At the very least, the development will raise further concerns among US officials concerning the ambiguity of China’s supposed exclusive access to the strategically crucial naval base, a strategic point between the Indian Ocean, Malacca Strait and the South China Sea.

Initial suspicions and warnings were raised by Joseph Felter, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia.

Last year, Felter penned a letter to Cambodian Minister of Defense Tea Banh, asserting that Cambodia’s reversal of its earlier decision to allow the US to repair and upgrade the facility was an indication of Cambodia’s intention to host Chinese military assets and personnel. The letter, as with Pence’s, was rebuked shortly after.

In response to the news, Admiral Vann Bunlieng, a high-ranking Royal Cambodia Navy official, told the Nikkei Asian Review on October 3 that the Chinese government is merely supporting the expansion of a ship repair facility and providing associated dredging around the base.

However, plans to upgrade the base with China’s help were previously published back in July 2016 by state-owned enterprise the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC Group). The webpage has since been taken down, but the MCC Group had said that it had “signed a cooperation framework agreement” with the Cambodian military to provide expansion work on a “navy military base.”

The waters around the base are currently only fit for smaller craft and significant dredging would be needed in order for larger Chinese warships to navigate the waters.

Cambodian naval personnel on boats berthed at a jetty at the Ream naval base in Preah Sihanouk province on July 26, 2019 during a government organised media tour. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

In his media comments, Admiral Benlieng refused to answer questions about the MCC Group report or about which Chinese companies were involved in the process and working with the Cambodian Ministry of Defense.

Analysts say one such possible partner is the Prince Group, a mammoth Chinese conglomerate that is highly active in the Cambodian domestic economy in various crucial sectors such as real estate and banking.

The Prince Group is developing a resort complex near Ream Bay, and the development involves land reclamation work covering approximately 40 hectares in the immediate land vicinity around the base.

The Prince Group is emblematic of a larger phenomenon whereby large tracts of land around the naval base have been leased out on a long-term basis to Chinese companies in recent years for the officially stated purposes of resort development, though without proper monitoring actual land use cannot be independently confirmed.

The Cambodian Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction announced a $16 billion mega-tourist development around Ream Bay in February as well as an intention to develop Sihanoukville – a tourist beach town – along the lines of Shenzhen, known as the Silicon Valley of China.

The wider plan seeks to link Ream Bay, Otres Beach, Ochheuteal Beach and Dara Sakor Airport into a “significant economic and tourism zone” developed primarily by China. Such economic and tourist activity, Cambodian officials have consistently attested, will not have military or national security applications.

The US Treasury Department sees it differently. Last month, it imposed economic sanctions against China’s Union Development Group, which is now building a $3.8 billion luxury gambling and lifestyle project on the Cambodian province of Koh Kong, on the grounds its Dara Sakor development project could be used to host Chinese military assets.   

China’s Embassy in Phnom Penh lambasted the move as a “blatant hegemonic act” that was “based on unwarranted charges.” It said the sanctions would not only “harm the lawful rights and interests of [UDG]” but also “trample on the sovereignty of Cambodia.”

US officials say they have noticed a pattern elsewhere where China invests heavily in a nation’s critical infrastructure, then acquires a valuable piece of waterfront real estate through a Chinese company and claims that such activity is only commercial. It finally uses the site in question to further China’s strategic geopolitical aims, seen for instance in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

If China is allowed to establish a significant military presence at Ream Base, it would radically transform the crucial maritime region’s balance of power, further threaten freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and potentially split the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a primary international organization working to forestall armed conflict between the two superpowers.

Beijing is clearly looking to enhance its capacity to enforce its controversial and contested maritime claims and gain a new edge over the Malacca Strait and Taiwan Strait, two areas with the potential for conflict with the US.

With a naval presence in Cambodia overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, China would have the power to threaten and potentially flip US allies in Southeast Asia, namely Thailand and Malaysia. It would also make it more difficult for regional navies to contend with now-normalized Chinese naval encroachments in their own territorial waters.

China’s plans for Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base are still shrouded in ambiguity, but earlier suspicions about Beijing’s intentions and Phnom Penh’s willingness to oblige those strategic requests have become a shade clearer through satellite imagery of a demolished US facility.