Beijing is looking to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific by establishing a naval facility in Cambodia, the paper claims
China is building a naval base for its military in Cambodia, with both Beijing and Phnom Penh going to great lengths to conceal the operation, the Washington Post reported on Monday, citing Western officials.
The facility, occupying a portion of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, is set to become only China’s second foreign outpost after the opening of a base in the East African nation of Djibouti in 2017, a Western official claimed, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The base is reportedly located to the west of the South China Sea, where Beijing has overlapping territorial claims with several countries. It will be capable of hosting large naval vessels, according to the source.
The leadership in Beijing see “the Indo-Pacific as China’s rightful and historic sphere of influence,” one official was quoted as saying. “They view China’s rise there as part of a global trend toward a multipolar world where major powers more forcefully assert their interests in their perceived sphere of influence.”
“Essentially, China wants to become so powerful that the region will give in to China’s leadership rather than face the consequences,” the source added.
The Post wrote that the groundbreaking ceremony at the Ream Naval Base will take place on Thursday, with sources claiming that Beijing is going to confirm its involvement in the expansion of the Cambodian facility during the event, but will remain silent about plans for it to be used by the Chinese military.
The deal to build new structures at the base was finalized in 2020, envisaging the Chinese military having “exclusive use of the northern portion of the base, while their presence would remain concealed,” a second official told the newspaper.
In order to maintain secrecy, foreign delegations visiting the Ream Naval Base have been only allowed access to a certain number of locations within the compound, while Chinese troops there were wearing Cambodian uniforms or civilian clothes to avoid raising suspicions, the source claimed.
“What we’ve seen over time is a very clear and consistent pattern of trying to obfuscate and hide both the end goal as well as the extent of Chinese military involvement,” the official stated. “The key thing here is the [Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s] exclusive use of the facility and having a unilateral military base in another country.”
Beijing and Phnom Penh have been trying to keep the project secret due to concerns about backlash in Cambodia as the Southeast Asian country’s constitution forbids hosting military bases of other nations, the official said. As the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, Phnom Penh also doesn’t want to be seen as “a pawn” of the Chinese, he added.
When approached by the Washington Post, the Cambodian embassy in the US rejected the claims by unnamed officials, calling them “baseless accusations motivated to negatively frame Cambodia’s image.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment, according to the paper.
Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has described the report by the Washington Post as “concerning.” Canberra and Phnom Penh remain in regular contact and “we have been consistently assured that no foreign military will be granted exclusive access at Ream,” he told journalists on Tuesday while on a visit to Indonesia.
According to Albanese, Australia has been “aware” of its Pacific rival’s activities at the Ream Naval Base. “We encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intent and to ensure that its activity supports regional security and stability,” he said.
In late May, Western media leaked a draft document indicating that Beijing was planning to offer economic and security cooperation deals to 10 small island nations in the Pacific. The agreements were reportedly very similar to the one signed by China and the Solomon Islands in April.
The deal had angered the US and Australia, with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink warning that Washington – which has hundreds of bases across the world – would have “significant concerns, and we would very naturally respond to those concerns” if China establishes a military base in the Solomon Islands.
Beijing rejected the American and Australian criticism, saying it distorts “facts and slanders China’s regular cooperation with the countries of Oceania.” The deal with the Solomon Islands would have a positive effect on the peaceful development of the region, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian insisted, providing assurance that “we don’t intend to build military bases there.”