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China is Building Carrier-Size Infrastructure at Cambodian Base

Contractors have built a giant new pier (top left) and are working on a new drydock (bottom center-right) at the Ream naval base (BlackSky, July 2023)
Contractors have built a giant new pier (top left) and are working on a new drydock (bottom center-right) at the Ream naval base (BlackSky, July 2023)

Published Nov 15, 2023 11:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. military has warned of Chinese plans to build a large base at Cambodia's Ream naval station for years, but even these predictions appear to fall short of the true scope. New satellite photos show that a newly-built finger pier at Ream is large enough to host an aircraft carrier, and a drydock - the most costly and recognizable element of any major naval base - appears to be under construction at the south end of the complex, according to analyst H.I. Sutton. 

The U.S. once contributed to Ream's development itself, but that relationship has been in decline for a long while. In 2020, Cambodian contractors demolished an American-built maritime security building at the naval base, paving the way for Chinese construction.

At the time, U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that they had an early draft of an agreement between Cambodia and China on the future use of the base. The deal would purportedly allow Chinese forces to use the northern half of the site for a period of 30 years, with automatic renewal thereafter.

Cambodia's constitution technically forbids permanent foreign military bases, but the country has been governed by the same family since 1985, and many analysts view the regime as a client of Beijing - and an inevitable host of a Chinese military presence.

Work at the base site appeared to move slowly during the pandemic, but in 2022, Cambodian and Chinese officials decided to hold a groundbreaking ceremony. They pitched the base upgrade as an aid project to help Cambodia's small navy, not a facility to serve China's strategic needs. "We need to upgrade our base to protect our nation, territory and sovereignty,” Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh said at the time. 

Contractors at Ream soon began building a large finger pier extending from the center of the base's waterfront. The pier's dimensions are long enough to host large warships - but Cambodia's navy lacks anything larger than a patrol boat. Tom Shugart, Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, told RFA that the new pier's dimensions would be long enough for a carrier on one side and long enough for any other Chinese warship on the other.

Similarly, a large drydock is under construction on reclaimed land at the south end of the site - and it is larger than needed to overhaul anything in Cambodia's own fleet. 

Successive satellite photos show that marine construction work on both of these new elements started at some point after August 2022, after the Chinese-Cambodian groundbreaking ceremony, and is already in an advanced stage. 

“There is now little doubt that it is a PLAN overseas base,” concluded H.I. Sutton.