China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is reportedly building a naval military base in Cambodia by mutual agreement between the governments of both countries, according to a serious allegation by U.S. officials. 

According to a controversial report published by the Washington Post, Western officials who spoke on condition of anonymity with the media to preserve their identity, assured that the Chinese communist regime was secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its army.

The sector assigned to the Chinese military forces would be in the northern part of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in the Gulf of Thailand and demonstrates an advance in the regime’s strategy to build a network of military facilities in different strategic regions around the world, to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a true world power.

This would be the Chinese regime’s second overseas naval base, the first being in Djibouti, East Africa, built in 2017, to facilitate operations in the Indian Ocean and Africa. Since 2014, China has also built seven heavily fortified artificial islands, three with airstrips, in the South China Sea.

But the alliance with Cambodia would imply a geopolitical advantage for China, which is interested in expanding its influence in the region and strengthening its presence in key Indo-Pacific sea lanes.

According to one of the officials, the Chinese regime is confident that the region is “unwilling or unable to challenge China’s core interests.” By using mechanisms of coercion, punishment and incentives in the diplomatic, economic and military arenas, believes it intends to make countries bow to its interests. “Essentially, China wants to become so powerful that the region will give in to China’s leadership rather than face the consequences [for not doing so],” he said.

China-Cambodia relationship 

Strong political ties and military cooperation crisscross the relationship between the two countries. This friendship accelerated at the end of the Cambodia-Vietnam war when Beijing backed the Khmer Rouge. This brutal regime ruled between 1975 and 1979 and killed around 2 million people in Cambodia.

Since then, China has become Cambodia’s first political and commercial partner, a country highly influenced by high levels of corruption and the extreme poverty of its inhabitants, who live on average with less than two dollars a day.  

For example, China’s influence over Cambodia is demonstrated by allegations that the Cambodian government gave Beijing veto power in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) consensus-based decision-making process in exchange for economic support.

In 2021, the Chinese regime agreed to provide the Southeast Asian nation with a 272 million dollar grant, which follows a series of provisions over the past few years, substantiating suspicions that China, with these policies, is buying wills in the Cambodian government.

Statements on the recent allegations

Both Cambodian and Chinese regime authorities denied the report regarding the construction of a secret naval facility for the Chinese fleet.

Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn was the first to reject the report as “baseless allegations,” according to a statement issued Tuesday night by the Cambodian government.

Earlier, a spokesman assured the Cambodian government would not allow China “to use the site exclusively or as its military base.” However, he never ruled out its intervention in the naval base.

Similarly, a Chinese official spoke to The Washington Post and ensured that “a part of the base” would be used by “the Chinese military.” He denied that it was for “exclusive” military use, adding that scientists could also use the facility. The official added that they are not involved in any activities on the Cambodian side of the base but did not deny their presence in any particular sector.

Cambodia’s defense minister and the Chinese ambassador attended a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for new facilities to be built at Ream, including a ship repair shop and a new pier.

Background

In 2019 The Wall Street Journal had already reported that the Chinese regime had signed a secret agreement with Cambodia permitting the PLA to use part of the large Ream naval base. The information at the time had been provided by the U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter.

The pact signed at the time would give China exclusive rights to part of the Cambodian naval facility, although not admitted by either side. This coincides with what is currently being denounced.

According to the informants, China will be able to use the base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after the first period. The regime will also be able to send military personnel, store weapons, and dock warships.

Consequences

Military operations from the naval base could greatly enhance Beijing’s ability to enforce its territorial and economic interests in the South China Sea, threaten U.S. allies in Southeast Asia, and extend its influence throughout the region.

The Chinese navy is already the largest in the world regarding the number of warships, 355 against the United States 297. In addition, it plans to acquire 100 more in the next 7 years. However, this numerical superiority is of little use if it does not succeed in expanding its network of facilities abroad. 

Herein lies the regime’s strong interest in expanding its military presence at strategic points worldwide, especially in developing countries that are unlikely to surveil its movements or demand behavioral guarantees. 

The Chinese regime has been repeatedly denounced in recent years as being suspected of secretly building military bases in various regions of interest, such as the Arab Emirates and the Solomon Islands.

It also keeps secret the role played by other military bases in different countries of Latin America and Asia mainly, which generates uncertainty in the international community about the intentions of the Chinese regime in its future military actions.

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