Chinese-funded construction, including land clearing, several new structures and a new pier, “continues to transform” Sihanoukville’s Ream Naval Base “at a rapid pace,” a U.S. think tank said Tuesday.
The new developments were completed in the last three months, with aerial images highlighting 28 acres of land cleared in the base’s center since July, and a new pier begun in June and finished in September, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Ream has been at the center of a geopolitical controversy in recent years, with U.S. officials voicing concerns since 2019 about an alleged deal between Cambodia and China that would grant China’s military exclusive access to a part of the base, situated on the Gulf of Thailand. Both Cambodian and Chinese officials have repeatedly denied the U.S. claims.
Defense Minister Tea Banh said in June that the base developments respected Cambodia’s constitution, which does not allow foreign military bases within its territory. Banh was speaking during a groundbreaking ceremony at Ream during which he touted planned upgrades at the base, including a dry dock slipway, pier at the southern edge of the base, workshop and reception building.
Ream previously featured U.S.-funded installations, which were demolished in 2020.
Satellite images from late June show a land mass about 80 meters long jutting into the sea off the coast of the base.
According to the CSIS post from Tuesday, barges seen at the pier in an image from last month “suggest it is being used to ferry in construction materials and equipment to relieve busy land routes.”
“One clamshell dredger continues to operate offshore, deepening the harbor and indicating additional land reclamation may be in store,” the post says.
In July, CSIS said construction at Ream, “especially on the northern end of the facility which is suspected to be set aside for China’s use,” had picked up in recent months, calling the beginnings of the new pier the latest development.
“In mid-June, what appears to be a new pier made of dredged sediment was built,” CSIS said at the time. “This seems to be the start of Chinese-funded expansions, to include a dry-dock, pier, and slipway, that Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh discussed during a ground-breaking ceremony in June attended by China’s ambassador.”
Dredging ships can be seen in satellite images from June to October off the coast of the base.
In January, CSIS said dredging of deeper ports “would be necessary for the docking of larger military ships at Ream, and was part of a secret agreement between China and Cambodia that U.S. officials reported seeing in 2019.”
Defense ministry spokesperson Chhum Socheat could not be reached on Wednesday, while vice admiral Ouk Seyha, Ream’s commander, declined to comment on defense affairs.
But government spokesman Phay Siphan said the Defense Ministry had previously stated that dredging in the area was to develop a deeper port to facilitate the docking of large ships from any nation.
“The modernization of Ream port is for the needs of the [Cambodian] naval base and not for China alone, but for all countries, and regarding the development of the port in the north, there’s no need to report to anyone about it,” Siphan said.
The U.S. and Chinese embassies in Phnom Penh did not respond to emailed questions.
CSIS also said two newly constructed buildings and eight additional foundations were visible on the base’s northern end, where land clearing occurred earlier this year. Construction on several buildings was also continuing at Ream’s southern end, the think tank added on Tuesday.
Policy analyst Sophal Ear said China appears eager to establish what they consider to be their naval base, taking advantage of Cambodia’s proximity to the South China Sea.
“Ream will allow power projection to the South China Sea and is another pearl in the necklace that China is building,” he said.