Cambodian-U.S. relations have steadily eroded ever since Phnom Penh went public in its support for Beijing and its foreign policy ambitions while hosting the ASEAN foreign ministers summit in 2012. This is one of the main issues that incoming Prime Minister Hun Manet will have to deal with.
Sore points have been many: a deterioration of democratic standards, jailing of dissidents – in particular the Khmer-American lawyer Theary Seng – and unsubstantiated allegations by outgoing Prime Minister Hun Sen that the U.S. had backed opposition plots to oust him.
And differences in attitudes between the U.S. and China were made all too apparent after ballots were cast at Sunday’s national election with Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulating Hun Sen on his victory in a poll derided by the U.S. as “neither free nor fair.”
Then, as the U.S. State Department was announcing visa restrictions and “a pause of certain foreign assistance programs,” commercial imagery company BlackSky released satellite photos focused on two years of Chinese progress in upgrading the Ream Naval Base.
The images show that the refurbishment of the base is almost complete. Ream was once little more than a dilapidated wooden pier, often used by various militaries to dock and resupply basic items while ferrying much needed goods, like medical supplies, into Cambodia during the years of post-war reconstruction.
The base itself covers 190 acres. But massive Chinese upgrades at Ream and the surrounding area has extended its size and the State Department insists it will be China’s first naval base in the Asia-Pacific and its second on the planet after Djibouti.
Cambodia has rejected claims the base, 20 kilometers southeast of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand, is being built for use by any foreign power or that the pier, recently extended to 363 meters, was built to berth aircraft carriers.
“The speed of development at the Ream base makes it difficult to deny the intentional velocity behind China’s overseas basing initiatives,” said Craig Singleton, China Program deputy director and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Cambodia’s receptivity to hosting China’s second overseas naval port increases Beijing’s strategic ability to project military power into the Indian Ocean.”
BlackSky noted there is a near-exact similarity between an angled deep-water pier on the western shore of the Ream base and a Chinese military pier in Djibouti, also 363 meters long, both of which are capable of supporting all Chinese navy vessels, including the Type 003 Fujian aircraft carrier.
It said analysts observed development of a 38,000 square meter (almost 10 acre) artificial peninsula on the southern shore and architecturally distinct Cambodian and Chinese military buildings, including an “alleged headquarters facility, barracks, and fuel storage areas.”
Outside of Ream it’s difficult not to see how far Chinese influence has expanded across the southeast coastline. Four lane highways and new bridges connect Sihanoukville with rows of casinos along the beaches of Otres, pass the airport, onto Ream and then the Bay of Lights project.
Bay of Lights is an enormous undertaking by this country’s standards, a $16 billion residential project to be built on a thousand hectares of reclaimed land. It also stands out as one project that is still under construction following the exodus of Chinese at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s an issue because Phnom Penh is often seen as a Beijing proxy by Washington and within ASEAN where half its members have hotly contested overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which is claimed entirely by China and where about third of the world’s trade is shipped.
In June 2021, a U.S. military attaché complained he was denied full access inside the base after he was invited for a visit. The U.S. Treasury Department then slapped sanctions on two senior Cambodian defense officials amid allegations related to Ream’s financing and systemic corruption.
However, Defense Minister Tea Banh insists his country will not hand over exclusive rights to China to operate the base, as alleged by the U.S. government, though Hun Sen has also warned he could ban U.S. visits to Ream.
It’s a messy relationship.
Cambodia has confirmed that the base is almost complete, which can only mean military vessels will be docking soon. Where from, what type, and how many will provide an early diplomatic test for Hun Manet, a West Point graduate and a four-star general, after he succeeds his father on August 22.