China’s Naval Base in Cambodia: A Rising Challenge to u.s. Naval Dominance

A quiet game of power projection is unfolding in the Gulf of Thailand. China’s construction of a naval base in Cambodia is nearing completion, showing significant advancements in its international naval capabilities and potentially challenging U.S. naval power in the region.

Satellite images from BlackSky, a U.S. commercial imagery company, reveal a nearly finished pier at the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia that closely resembles the Chinese military’s pier at their overseas base in Djibouti. These images suggest that this new base could also accommodate aircraft carriers, marking a significant escalation in China’s maritime reach.

Despite repeated denials from both China and Cambodia regarding the People’s Liberation Army’s access to the base, U.S. Pentagon officials remain wary. A former U.S. intelligence official explained the unease, stating, “There has been debate inside the [U.S] government about what exactly China would do with the base and why it would be better than a base in the South China Sea or Hainan Island.”

While China possesses a larger navy than the U.S., it lacks the extensive international network of bases and logistics facilities needed to operate as a “blue water” navy. The new base in Cambodia could provide a strategic advantage to China, extending their influence and complicating potential U.S. military responses in case of conflict.

As Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA expert on the Chinese military, explains, “the Ream base would have its greatest strategic value were tensions in the South China Sea to boil over into a military confrontation.” He added that the new base would also enhance China’s naval capabilities towards the strategic shipping lanes of the Malacca Strait, a vital choke point in any conflict with the U.S. and its regional allies.

This is not the first time China has been involved in constructing military bases on foreign soil. Over the past decade, they have built several bases on reefs and reclaimed land in the South China Sea. The new base in Cambodia, however, could further extend their reach and bolster their strategic position.

Evan Medeiros, a China expert at Georgetown University, emphasized the broader implications: “A naval base [in Cambodia] increases China’s regional influence in south-east Asia, suggesting the developing world is rapidly becoming an arena for U.S-China military competition.”

Construction of the pier, long enough to accommodate warships and aircraft carriers, began in July 2022. Harrison Prétat, an associate head of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, noted the similarity between the Ream pier and the Djibouti pier, both having a 335-metre section that could berth a Chinese aircraft carrier. He said, “The similarity to the Djibouti pier certainly is another indicator that China is likely involved in the construction.”

China’s increasing international presence comes at a time of escalating geopolitical competition. The U.S. has recently secured access to four new bases in the Philippines and signed a security pact with Papua New Guinea to provide the Pentagon with access to bases in the country.

However, the U.S. government is not without its concerns. The Biden administration continues to push for transparency around China’s access to the Cambodian naval base, particularly after Chinese troops were seen on the base dressed in Cambodian fatigues.

The Pentagon believes that China’s expanded overseas logistics and basing arrangements would give the People’s Liberation Army Navy a greater reach in the broader Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. Defense Department stated in a report that a global Chinese military logistics network could disrupt U.S. military operations as China’s global military objectives evolve.

On the Cambodian side, the constitution strictly forbids the presence of foreign military bases on its soil, and the nation is currently seeking a more neutral position. However, with the increasing tensions between the U.S. and China, the strategic importance of the naval base can’t be understated.

Brian Harding, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace and a former Defense Department official, stated, “The Cambodians are at this moment where they’re trying to swim back, at least a little bit, away from China and towards the United States.” He added, “So long as Hun Sen [Cambodian Prime Minister] is going to remain in power and the economic interests of him and his family are going to be taken care of, he doesn’t want to be completely owned by the Chinese.”

These developments signal an increasing desire by China to expand its strategic military power in the region. While they openly talk about “repatriating” Taiwan, they have shown a great deal of belligerence in dealing with countries in the South China Sea, notably the Philippines. This will get worse before it gets better.