China ‘Tightens Grip’ On Cambodia; To Hold Military Drills At Ream Naval Base Province, That Hosts PLA-Navy

China and Cambodia are scheduled to begin a military exercise codenamed the ‘Golden Dragon 2024’ even as the Chinese Navy denies its plan to use Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base as one of its military outposts.

The Royal Gendarmerie, a division of the Cambodian military forces, said that the “Counter-terrorism Operations and Humanitarian Relief” exercises will take place at two primary locations in the provinces of Sihanoukville and Kampong Chhnang.

The drills will start on May 16 and continue till May 30, according to General Chhum Sucheat, spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Defense, who announced it at a press conference in Phnom Penh.

On its part,  the Chinese defense ministry said: “This is the sixth China-Cambodia “Golden Dragon” joint military exercise. It is conducive to further consolidating the iron-clad friendship between the two countries, enhancing strategic coordination between the two militaries and jointly safeguarding regional peace and stability.”

Last year, China and Cambodia held joint military naval exercises for the first time in Cambodian waters. At that time, the Chinese Defense Ministry said three ships from China and Cambodia worked together to finish formation training and communication drills.

This year, the preparations for the joint drills are going on in full earnest on both sides. Two warships from the Chinese military have been sent to Cambodia to participate in training exercises with the Cambodian Navy.

The landing ship Jinggangshan and the training ship Qijiguang are en route to train alongside Cambodian naval forces, according to a statement released by Beijing’s Ministry of National Defense.

A Type 071 amphibious landing ship with a capacity for up to 800 soldiers, the Jinggangshan participated in Golden Dragon 2023 and carried out a first-of-its-kind maritime drill in the waters outside Sihanoukville with the Cambodian Navy.

Zhao DaShuai, an official possibly associated with China’s Propaganda Bureau, published a video on May 9 of PLA troops boarding the Type-071 amphibious transport vessel headed for Cambodia. A caption accompanying the video highlighted China’s sea-lift capability provided by the ginormous vessel.

The vessel is one of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) most prized possessions. Last year, it was also spotted near Taiwan in what the Chinese media described as “sending a strong signal to Taiwan’s Independence forces.”

While the military drills between the two states are not unusual, the exercises have attracted attention in light of the latest developments at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. While none of the sides have provided specific details, one of the locations chosen by the drills, i.e., Sihanoukville, also houses the contentious Ream Naval Base.

Screengrab of the Chinese vessel

All Eyes On Ream Naval Base

The Ream Naval Base, which provides a strategic location in the region to the PLA Navy, has been in the spotlight as China expands its influence in Cambodia.

Late last month, satellite imagery showed two PLAN warships docked for extended periods at the new pier despite repeated concerns expressed by the United States.

The Defense Minister of Cambodia, Tea Seiha, first posted a picture of the two Chinese warships in Ream on Facebook on December 3 last year, stating that they were there for training exercises with the Cambodian Navy. By January this year, there were reports that the ships had left the facility. However, they were sighted once again the same month.

According to an investigation by the CSIS think tank’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), the PLA warships have been in Cambodia for over four months. “Satellite imagery also showed no other ships, including any Cambodian vessels, docking at the new pier, which was completed last year (2023) to enable larger warships to dock in Ream’s shallow waters,” the AMTI report said.

The report triggered concerns that the facility would help in the deployment of warships and coastguard vessels around the region at short notice.

The aircraft carrier-size pier at Ream base and dry dock facilities will provide the PLAN with an extended presence in the Bay of Bengal and affect the balance of power in the region.

File Image: Naval base in Cambodia

With significant upgrades on the verge of completion, AMTI claimed that since its last inspection, work at the Ream Naval Base had advanced by “leaps and bounds.” (Check a detailed EurAsian Times article on the construction at Ream.)

Although it has acknowledged accepting funding for constructing the facilities, Cambodia has insisted that it was intended for national defense. The Chinese ambassador to Cambodia was present at the naval base site’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2022.

Ahead of the upcoming military drills, General Chhum Sucheat was reported saying that the two Chinese ships, which have been moored at the Ream naval base in Cambodia since last December, were there to assist in training the Cambodian Navy and prepare for the joint exercises.

He emphasized that the PLAN was not using Ream’s facilities as a military base. Adding a twist to this tale, the General said that Cambodia was considering purchasing warships like those that were at Ream Naval Base. The two Chinese warships in Ream could be Type 056 guided-missile corvettes.

The Chinese and Cambodian governments have denied reports of a Chinese military presence at the Ream Naval Base in the Gulf of Thailand. The base would increase China’s access to the Indo-Pacifi,c as it currently has only one overseas naval base in the East African country of Djibouti.