China’s Naval Base In Cambodia Undergoes Rapid Construction; Can Host An Aircraft Carrier – Satellite Images Reveal

In what appears to be another step towards realizing Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, a new set of satellite images reveals that the country has, since 2020, made progress toward constructing a naval base in Cambodia, with several structures now nearing completion.

Tom Shugart, a former US Navy submariner and defense analyst, published satellite images that he obtained from Planet Labs on February 21, providing a comprehensive update on China’s progress in building its new base at Ream in Cambodia. The images are dated January 15, 2023.

In a long thread, Shugart attempted to provide an overview of the construction project as of January 2024, in comparison to March 2020, when the work had first started.

American officials and analysts have warned that establishing a Chinese naval facility in Cambodia is an essential component of Beijing’s plan to build a network of military outposts worldwide.

Although Washington has raised concerns and issued warnings regarding the Ream naval base’s alleged development as China’s first military facility in the Indo-Pacific region, Cambodia has denied any plans to grant access to the People’s Liberation Army.

The latest satellite images do show a lot of progress. By January 2024, several buildings had gone up at the northern part of the base, along with what looked like streets and foundations, indicating that more such buildings were likely to come up.

Along with several brand-new buildings (complete with basketball courts) and the foundations for more buildings, there are gasoline tanks in the eastern portion of the base.

These tanks are around 20 meters in diameter. Shugart noted that the massive fuel storage would not just cater to Cambodia’s patrol boats in what could be a subtle hint that they would also be used by Beijing’s vessels, which may be berthed at the base.

Reports from last year indicated that a pier capable of berthing an aircraft carrier was nearing completion at the naval base, as shown by images captured by BlackSky, a US commercial imagery company monitoring the construction progress at Ream Naval Base.

In July last year, the images from the Ream naval outpost depicted an almost completed pier that appeared to be similar in size and design to a pier used by the Chinese military at their only overseas outpost in Djibouti in the Indian Ocean Region.

Both the Djibouti and Ream piers have a 335-meter portion that can hold a Chinese aircraft carrier, signaling that Beijing is slated to station its carriers in Cambodia.

By December last year, Chinese vessels had anchored at the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia for the first time. A Facebook post from Tea Seiha, the son of Cambodia’s Minister of Defense, Tea Banh, stated that the minister visited the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy warships anchored at the Ream port.

Though the message made no mention of the Chinese military, the photographs that went with the post featured two PLA Navy corvettes docked side by side. Tea Banh was seen in a line of Chinese naval officers on board one of the corvettes, known as the “Wenshan,” on the gangplank of the ship.

Former Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh on board a Chinese corvette at the Ream Naval Base.

At the time, Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, said, “It is a signal that Ream is about to be completed. Of course, it’s still a work in progress for them, but at least now, it has expanded to the point that it could accommodate a foreign navy ship.”

In the January 2024 images accessed by Shugart, a new building is under development on reclaimed land in the southern section. “While there’ve been theories it would be a dry dock, it’s not looking like that to me (though I’ve no idea what it WILL be). Also looks like there might be an additional wharf being built.”

There also seems to be an expansion in the southeast section, which was previously not known to be a part of the facility. EurAsian Times, however, could not independently verify these claims made by the defense analyst.

The images also provide an insight into the scale of construction. Although the Ream Naval Base is not as big as bases in Japan or the Philippines, it is still a sizeable facility that would likely accommodate several big PLA Navy vessels, according to military watchers.

While the threat has been underlined by the United States and China’s regional adversaries on multiple occasions, the location of the base close to the Malacca Strait supposedly also poses a threat to India, grappling with an expansive China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Indo-Pacific region.

China’s Cambodia Facility, a Concern for India?

China’s large navy is constrained by the lack of a vast worldwide network of bases and logistical infrastructure. Beijing’s goal of building a fully functional blue-water navy that can undertake worldwide operations depends on these facilities.

Beijing, then, would have a significant strategic advantage if it could establish a base on the Gulf of Thailand, which is why it is believed to be aiding the construction of Ream Naval Base. This would allow Beijing to increase its naval power and project it more successfully throughout the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, giving the PLA Navy more freedom to operate in international waters.

The base would also expand and improve Beijing’s naval operational capacities toward the critical shipping lanes of the Malacca Strait, a pivotal choke point in any potential conflict involving the US and its regional allies.

The Malacca Strait is a narrow strait that connects the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. The Ream Naval Base development will be keenly monitored by New Delhi since India may feel strategically encircled by China’s aggressive operations in the South China Sea, including the establishment of military installations on disputed islands.

It is believed that the Indian Ocean could be affected by any unrest or military conflict in the South China Sea, which would compromise India’s marine security and economic routes. There is concern among military watchers that China could use such facilities to choke the Malacca Strait and thwart any potential reinforcements for its adversaries via this crucial route.

Miguel Miranda, a Philippines-based military analyst, told EurAsian Times: “It helps to remember China has a limited number of overseas bases and that the artificial islands it maintains in the South China Sea pose a far bigger challenge to territorial control and regional politics.”

“As for a potential naval base in Cambodia, this has yet to become operational, and many countries–not just China–are seeking military bases in regions they deem vital, whether it’s the USA maintaining its presence in Syria or the Russians still trying to bolster its presence in Central Africa. It’s a global trend that will accelerate through the 2020s. From India’s perspective, he added that China’s military threat on land and growing sealift and airlift resources are far better indicators of the challenges ahead than what is going on in Cambodia,” he added.

Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya- Wikipedia

On its part, New Delhi has not been unduly bothered by these developments and has continued to strengthen its position in Andaman and Nicobar. Speaking to Indian publication LiveMint, former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash dismissed the move as just another step towards realizing the “China Dream” and asserted that it wasn’t a cause for alarm for India.

According to the Admiral, it must be viewed as a component of Beijing’s broader plan to become a Superpower by 2047. He said India’s current location gives it sufficient supremacy over the Indian Ocean region. Also, it did not have the resources or the need to engage in a naval competition with China.

“This is an interesting development for India, as well as the larger Indo-Pacific region, but not a cause for alarm. I say this because the development of Cambodia’s Ream port, with Chinese assistance, is just another step in Beijing’s unfolding grand strategy for achieving the “China Dream,” or attainment of Super Power status by 2047 or earlier. At an early stage, the CPC realized that an essential prerequisite for achieving the China Dream was for China to become a maritime power,” Admiral Arun Prakash said.

Nevertheless, the former Navy chief said with conviction that the marine sphere would be the site of the actual power struggle in the Indo-Pacific region and advised that the country needed to focus on its navy and provide all of India’s maritime power components enough money and assistance.