Recent satellite images taken of the coastal area around Sihanoukville, Cambodia, show a significant development of a China-funded naval base that would help Beijing boost its power projection not only in Southeast Asia but also the Taiwan Strait.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a secret deal to allow the Chinese military to use part of the base. Phnom Penh has repeatedly denied the deal, saying giving a foreign country exclusive military access to the base would be in contradiction to Cambodia’s constitution.
In June last year, however, the two countries began a project to develop the Ream Naval Base, in Sihanoukville province on the Gulf of Thailand, with China’s funding.
Latest satellite pictures obtained by Radio Free Asia from the Earth imaging company Planet Labs show massive changes in the landscape, as well as new constructions and large-scale land clearance.
Compared to a Google Earth image from July 1, 2022, when the development project just started, the naval base now has two new piers.
A number of new structures have been built at the center of the base, one of which resembles a cement plant to provide for the whole project, according to Tom Shugart, Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Similarly, the two new piers seem to be temporary ones to ferry in construction materials and equipment and not naval piers for warships.
In just six months, two large areas have been cleared for facilities development in the center and the southeast, the latter is approximately 66 acres. The cleared area in the center is around 28 acres, or over 15 percent of Ream’s total land area, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS.
The developers also reclaimed an area in the southern part of the base.
Overall, “the speed and scale of construction is simply impressive,” Shugart told RFA.
Under the current development project, besides two new piers China will also help Cambodia build a dry dock, a slipway, a hospital and several other buildings as well as roads.
Beijing will also assist the Cambodian Royal Navy to repair some of its old ships and dredge navigation lanes to allow medium-sized vessels to access the base.
The Wall Street Journal, citing U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter, alleged that the Hun Sen’s government gave the Chinese military permission to use part of the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after that.
The reported deal would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia, the second in the world after a base in Djibouti, and allow it to significantly expand patrols across the South China Sea towards the Taiwan Strait and beyond.
The Washington Post meanwhile quoted a Chinese official in Beijing as saying last June that “a portion of the base” will be used exclusively by the Chinese military.
Phnom Penh rejected the allegations, arguing that it had organized several visits for foreign diplomats to Ream, proving it was “not a secret base.”
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan at that time also told RFA’s Khmer Service that “there is no agreement or law saying that the construction is reserved for Chinese benefit exclusively.”
A U.S. defense attaché did get clearance in 2021 to visit the base but said that he was not allowed full access.
Analysts also question the connection between the naval base and Dara Sakor International Airport, which is located 60 kilometers (37 miles) away and expected to begin commercial operations soon.
The airport was built by a Chinese company, the Union Group, with China’s money and is home to Cambodia’s longest runway.
U.S. officials reportedly raised concerns that the airport could potentially be used by the Chinese Air Force. This again was rejected by the Cambodian government.
Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this month paid an official visit to Beijing, during which he was reassured by the Chinese leaders of China’s continuous support for Cambodia’s “national sovereignty and security.”
Soon afterwards Hun Sen visited Vietnam, which has been watching the Cambodia-China rapprochement closely. The Ream Naval Base is only some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Vietnam’s southern island of Phu Quoc.