Changes Underway at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base

October 2, 2020
October 2, 2020  |  AMTI Brief

The Cambodian government has demolished a U.S.-built facility at the country’s Ream Naval Base, according to satellite imagery collected on October 1. The demolition occurred sometime after September 5—likely around September 10—though imagery of sufficient resolution to confirm was not available at that time. The building was one of several U.S.-funded facilities on the base which were reportedly to be relocated after Cambodia struck a secret deal to grant China access to Ream. The recent demolition seems to confirm that changes are underway at the naval base and again raises questions about rumored Chinese access.

U.S.-built facilities at Ream Naval BaseThe Wall Street Journal reported in July 2019 that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement giving China access to Ream in return for the construction of new infrastructure at the base. The report cited unnamed U.S. officials who had seen an early draft of the agreement. It reportedly allowed access for Chinese troops, weapons, and ships for 30 years with an automatic renewal every 10 years thereafter. The Journal reported that Washington’s suspicions grew after Cambodia refused U.S. funding to repair facilities at Ream, which Phnom Penh had requested in the first place. Joseph Felter, then U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, had sent a letter to Cambodia’s defense minister asking for more information about the decision on June 24, 2019. Reuters reported on July 1 that a Cambodian defense ministry spokesperson said, “At Ream, perhaps, there will be some changes in the future.”The building demolished last month was the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security. Officially inaugurated in 2012, it was renovated and built by the United States and equipped by Australia. The larger building to its north, which is still standing, is the Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) Ramp and Boat Maintenance Facility, built by the United States in 2017. That is the building Felter said Cambodian officials first asked for and then refused U.S. help to repair.  Left: The headquarters building as it stood on August 22; Right: The demolished site on October 1Following the Wall Street Journal’s report, Cambodian officials denied the existence of a deal, with Prime Minister Hun Sen calling it “the worst-ever made-up news against Cambodia” and citing the Cambodian constitution, which forbids the hosting of foreign military bases in the country. He had given a similar response in November 2018 when Vice President Mike Pence sent a letter raising concerns over possible Chinese basing in Cambodia. As recently as June, Hun Sen denied plans for a Chinese military facility and said Ream welcomes ships from “any country” to dock.Large tracts of land all around Ream Naval Base have been leased by Chinese companies, some with connections to Beijing, for resort development. One of these is Canopy Sands Development Group, a subsidiary of Prince Real Estate Group, which is developing the stretch of Ream Bay directly north of the naval base. Satellite imagery shows that the company began reclaiming land about three miles north of the base in February. It has so far created about 100 acres of new landfill for an unknown purpose.Land reclamation at Ream Bay, August 22, 2020The Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction also announced in February that Ream Bay would be the site of a $16 billion resort project. The dredging, which started just four days after that project was announced, is presumably part of the resort development—perhaps the beginning of port infrastructure. But with current facilities at Ream Naval Base only able to host small patrol ships, any large port development nearby bears watching.###The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

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