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Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion in a direct challenge to US naval power in South East Asia

Source : Financial Times

Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion in a direct challenge to US naval power in South East Asia
The pier at China’s naval base in Djibouti, left, and the pier at the new base in Cambodia will both be capable of berthing aircraft carriers (Image © BlackSky)

Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion in a direct challenge to US naval power in South East Asia

China has made significant progress building a naval base in Cambodia and is close to completing a pier that could berth an aircraft carrier, according to satellite imagery.

Images taken by BlackSky, a US commercial imagery company that has been monitoring the construction at Ream Naval Base, show a nearly complete pier that is strikingly similar in size and design to a pier that the Chinese military uses at its only overseas base in Djibouti.

The Pentagon believes China is building a facility in Cambodia to boost its ability to project naval power. China and Cambodia have denied that the People’s Liberation Army will have access to the base.

China has a bigger navy than the US but lacks the extensive international network of bases and logistics facilities needed to operate as a “blue water” navy that can sail around the world. Access to a base on the Gulf of Thailand would also provide a strategic advantage to China.

“There has been debate inside the [US] government about what exactly China would do with the base and why it would be better than a base in the South China Sea or Hainan Island,” said one former US intelligence official.

China has over the past decade built a number of military bases on reefs and reclaimed land in the South China Sea. But a base in another country could complicate any US military response in the case of a conflict.

“If the US and China went to war, the US could just bomb bases in the South China Sea. But in the case of this base, we would be bombing Cambodian territory,” said the former official.

Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA expert on the Chinese military, said the Ream base would have its “greatest strategic value were tensions in the South China Sea to boil over into a military confrontation”.

“[It] would also extend and enhance China’s naval operating capabilities towards the strategic shipping lanes of the Malacca Strait — a vital choke point in any conflict with the US and its regional allies,” Wilder added.

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A spokesperson at the Chinese embassy in the US said Cambodia had stated that its constitution banned foreign military bases on its soil and that the construction was to strengthen Cambodia’s capacity. In March, China and Cambodia held their first naval exercise in Cambodian territorial waters.

China frequently responds to criticism by saying that the US military has hundreds of military facilities around the world, including in Asia.

Washington recently reached a deal with Manila that will provide the US military with access to four new bases in the Philippines. Lloyd Austin will this week become the first US defence secretary to travel to Papua New Guinea, in a visit that comes after the two countries signed a security pact that will provide the Pentagon with access to bases in the country.

“A naval base [in Cambodia] increases China’s regional influence in south-east Asia, suggesting the developing world is rapidly becoming an arena for US-China military competition,” said Evan Medeiros, a China expert at Georgetown University. “Africa and Latin America could be next.”

BlackSky says the first signs of construction of the pier, which is long enough to berth warships, including aircraft carriers, came in July 2022. China has rapidly built the pier since the end of 2022, images show.

Harrison Prétat, associate head of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the CSIS think-tank, said the Ream pier was similar to the Djibouti pier with both having a 335-metre section that could berth a Chinese aircraft carrier.

“The similarity to the Djibouti pier certainly is another indicator that China is likely involved in the construction,” said Prétat. “The dispute is about how the facilities would be used.” Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion Chinese base in Cambodia nears completion IgMp



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