New Chinese Naval Base Raises Stakes in Southeast Asia

Itn October 2020, satellite photos showed that the Cambodian government had demolished two American-built facilities at the Southeast Asian nation’s Ream Naval Base—despite Washington offering to renovate them.

On June 9, China is set to break ground on a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval facility at the same base, according to reports first published in the Washington Post. It’s a clear sign of Beijing’s increasingly robust power projection in the Asia-Pacific as it seeks to counter a U.S. policy of containment.

Chinese and Cambodian officials denied there would be any permanent PLA presence at Ream. The truth is that the Post says a Beijing official has confirmed that the Chinese military, and Chinese scientists, will use a “portion” of the base.

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The PostStory chimes in with the 2019 report of the Wall Street JournalAccording to this report, China has signed a secret 30-year deal with the United States for Ream’s military use. TIME was told by U.S. diplomatic officials that they expect at least a semi permanent Chinese military presence.

“Geopolitical competition with the U.S. is increasingly becoming the main lens in which the Chinese leadership is looking at foreign policy and its international behavior more broadly,” says Helena Legarda, lead analyst for the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

On July 26, 2019, a group of government-organized media tours took place in Cambodia.


An Era New of U.S. China Competition

China has built fortifications on the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea for many years. In 2017, it opened the only overseas official base, Djibouti, which is also home to the U.S. and France.

Beijing is said to be building a port facility for military use in the United Arab Emirates. A security agreement between China and Solomon Islands was published online in April. Beijing confirmed it, which allowed China to send military personnel and police to South Pacific nations. This could be a precursor to permanent military presence, according to some U.S. officials.

The establishment of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia would boost Beijing’s aspirations of becoming a true global power with a network of military facilities around the world. That, combined with the Biden administration’s vow to compete with China, risks heightened tensions in the region.

“The big picture is that the region is becoming more militarized,” says Professor Jonathan Sullivan, director of China programs at the Asia Research Institute of U.K.’s Nottingham University. “Not just through U.S. and China, but with others increasing defense spending in response, which increases risk given that the two major actors are in explicit competition and actively building alliances and capacity.”

China is a strategic power with long-term plans to be the Asia-Pacific’s leading. However, it would find it difficult to compete against U.S. dominance without having overseas bases. According to a 2021 Pentagon report, China is “seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure … to support naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection.” Other than Cambodia, it has “likely considered a number of countries,” including Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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Practically, the Cambodian base would allow China to quickly deploy its coastguard and warships around the region. It will not be necessary for them to sail long distances, during which they can be monitored and countered. Additionally, easier access to Southeast Asian maritime lanes such as the Straits of Malacca would improve intelligence monitoring and logistical logistics.

Southeast Asia has seen democratic progress since the military coups that took place in Thailand last year and Myanmar in 2018. The remarkable political recovery of the Marcos clan in the Philippines also contributed to this trend. Cambodia, the ASEAN country most closely associated with Beijing, is Cambodia. It has long been surrounded by Prime Minister Hun Sen and billions in infrastructure loans, development projects, and cronies. The U.S. was in 2017 when the Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt stated that they were not interested in a positive relationship with Cambodia. Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt said that the Cambodian government was “not interested in a positive relationship” with the U.S.

China’s footprint in Cambodia has only grown since. According to certain reports, Cambodia was the first ASEAN member to reject joint communiques concerning the South China Sea.

We will see how the news about Ream Naval Base affects other ASEAN members. Unpredictable reactions could be expected from a China-wary Vietnam or a new Philippine administration. However, says Sullivan, “If the reaction is minor, it may suggest other possibilities for China, which is increasingly motivated to secure these kinds of cooperation.”

Elias Wohengu, Acting Secretary of Papua New Guinea’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2nd R), and James Noglai, Chief of Protocol, receive Wang Yi (C), Chinese Foreign Minister at Port Moresby Jacksons International Airport in June 2, 2022

ANDREW KUTAN/AFP via Getty Images

How the U.S. And Allies Push Back

Canberra is playing a key role in Washington’s containment strategy. Already, Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has called on Beijing to be open about its intentions in Cambodia. “We’ve been aware of Beijing’s activity at Ream for some time,” Albanese told reporters during a visit to Indonesia on Tuesday. “We encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intent and to ensure that its activities support regional security and stability.”

Late May saw Foreign Minister Wang Yi complete a South Pacific tour with the goal of securing a security and development pact between China and the 10 islands. China’s proposal was shelved at a meeting in Fiji by nations wary of being caught between Washington and Beijing, but several bilateral deals were signed. Australia’s new foreign minister Penny Wong was dispatched to South Pacific last week in order to boost support for its traditional sphere of influence. “China has made its intentions clear [but] so too are the intentions of the new Australian government,” Wong said in a statement.

China is meanwhile raised concernsThe International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors met Monday to discuss the AUKUS trilateral Security Agreement, in which the U.S. (and the U.K.) will give Australia support for building nuclear submarines.

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But alongside the South Pacific, Southeast Asia is equally emerging as a key battleground for influence between China and the U.S., which is ASEAN’s second largest trade partner after China, but still its largest source of Foreign Direct Investment. Last month, Washington hosted a ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit to promote “peace, security and stability” in the region.

Beijing can be expected to match and even attempt to outdo Washington’s outreach. “The strategic calculus for China in Southeast Asia still accentuates economic cooperation—the bet being that more countries will perceive benefits in keeping China onside,” says Sullivan.

Legarda says that China’s courting of the Global South, including Southeast Asia, is part of Beijing’s desire to build a coalition of countries to push back against a U.S.-dominated global order. “The more that Beijing sees itself as being encircled by an emerging coalition of Western powers and their allies and partners in the region, the harder it’s going to push back.”

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