China’s latest foray into building up its presence in the South China Sea, a dual-use enlargement of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, part of its “String of Pearls” strategy to establish itself as a blue-water maritime power capable of challenging the US, is adding to concerns about Beijing’s expanding naval aggressiveness. Previous examples include the ports of Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, both on the Indian Ocean which are either largely funded by, and/or controlled by Chinese state-owned companies.
On the ground, Cambodian locals have remarked on the increasing Chinese presence around the base as construction has intensified over the past year. Vietnamese officials have also described a sudden increase in Chinese movement of personnel and equipment into Ream since April, reflecting the overall growing influence of China in Cambodia as well. That has not only raised the eyebrows of the US but also of Cambodia’s neighbors such as Thailand and Vietnam. For Thailand, a potential Chinese presence at Ream could allow for Chinese coercive power projection directly at its front door. More significantly for Vietnam, a Chinese military presence at Ream in future could potentially threaten the country’s defensive positioning from the south in a pincer movement with Chinese naval and air power from the north originating out of Hainan Island.
Other military and civil infrastructure construction across the South China Sea has rung additional alarm bells among the littoral nations, with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. earlier this month publicly calling on Malaysia and Vietnam to discuss a separate code of conduct regarding the South China Sea and citing China’s “aggressive” behavior and escalating tensions that require the Philippines to partner with allies and neighbors to maintain peace. The situation, Marcos said during a conference in Hawaii, is now “more dire.”
While in the past competing claims among the littoral nations have impeded attempts at cooperation, that may be changing as China adds to the number of islets in the South China Sea that it is reclaiming. Beijing in October raised additional concerns by publishing a “10-dash line” map that claims even more territory than its 1947 “nine-dash line,” extending not only further into the South China Sea but also waters around the Indian region of Arunachal Pradesh.
“In recent months, Chinese incursions have increased both in scope and frequency; many such incidents are played down so as not to add to tension with China,” said a former senior regional diplomat who asked to remain unnamed. “As a result, Malaysia is exploring all sorts of other arrangements with both its neighbors and with the US, Japan, Australia, etc. During the recent Japanese visit, much time was spent discussing the threat posed by China. There’s also a sense that ASEAN may not be the best vehicle to discuss China’s maritime claims given that Cambodia and Laos have become proxies for China. Besides, neither of these countries have skin in the game. It may be time for all countries in the region who face a common challenge from China to band together at least in a loose and informal grouping.”
China’s involvement in building up Ream makes it Beijing’s second overseas military base, the first being established at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa in 2017. Satellite imagery over the past 18 months has discovered that Ream has seen the addition of not only a pier long enough to dock an aircraft carrier, but is also well along in constructing a large drydock on reclaimed land at the southern portion of the base. Further open-source satellite imagery analysis by Tom Shugart, a senior defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security, indicates that significant area-clearing and roadworks have been done within the area reserved for exclusive Chinese military use to allow for the deployment of radar-guided long-range antiaircraft missile systems similarly seen in air defense nets over China’s own naval bases such as Yalong in Hainan Island.
China’s maritime insecurity has long been common knowledge and is a key motivation for the country’s military buildup over the past two decades. With a largely export-driven economy and heavy reliance on imported energy from the Middle East through its sea lines of communications snaking through the Indian and South China Sea, China has pressing security needs to safeguard and project naval power on the high seas. In order to make up for its lack of a true blue-water naval capability which requires sustained deployment of naval forces far away from the Chinese mainland, China has been steadily imprinting its influence on a growing number of port facilities around the world which can theoretically allow it to send its naval ships to be effectively forward-deployed without the need for a logistical leash constraining it to operating out of mainland Chinese ports.
There are conflicting views regarding the true significance of China’s involvement with Ream Naval Base. Some believe Ream is of limited strategic value owing to its geographical position on the Cambodian coastline, effectively rendering it a maritime cul-de-sac in the Gulf of Thailand, which makes it of limited added value to China’s naval power projection when it already has multiple naval bases on Hainan Island not too far away which enjoy direct access to the South China Sea where the PLA Navy has multiple territorial disputes with other neighboring countries in the region.
Furthermore, while it is true that the new berthing pier built at Ream is of a kind only seen in China’s other overseas base at Djibouti and is long enough to theoretically dock any of China’s aircraft carriers or naval resupply vessels, the lack of substantial, modern mooring and shore facilities along with the shallow waters around Ream would make the practicality of such a deployment questionable at best. Some experts have also pointed out Ream’s proximity to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base, from which the US Navy has both naval operational as well as logistical presence that can easily choke off any Chinese naval vessel in Ream should hostilities break out.
On the part of the Chinese and Cambodians, both parties have strenuously denied that Ream Naval Base is to be a secret Chinese overseas military base by harkening back to the Cambodian constitution which forbids foreign military bases to be constructed on Cambodian soil.
However, the latest developments surrounding Ream seem to hint at circumstances rapidly changing to allow for the naval base to become increasingly feasible as a de-facto Chinese overseas naval base. First, the latest satellite imagery shows the construction of a large drydock in excess of any naval vessel currently being operated by the Cambodian Navy, calling into question the actual beneficiary of such a facility’s utility. Second, the nearby Dara Sakor International Airport, currently claimed to be still under construction and funded by China, has an unusually long runway at more than 3,000 meters for its remote and sparsely populated region, something which US military analysts have suspected as being conveniently dual-purpose to handle Chinese military aircraft.
Finally, in April the Cambodian government suddenly announced plans to develop new air defense and naval radar installations near the naval base within Ream National Park. In September, the government also conveniently accepted delivery of its first Chinese-made KS-1C medium and long-range air defense system. While the new proposed air defense installation by Cambodia is yet to actually materialize, the latest satellite imagery showing area clearings and roadworks within the Chinese half of the naval base similar to air defense installations on other Chinese overseas bases in the South China Sea region hints at the possibility that the PLA Air Force will be able to deploy its own air defense assets by Cambodian proxy, if not do so outright at any time.
Andy Wong Ming Jun is a specialist in naval strategy with a Master’s Degree in International Security from the University of Bath.