A controversial naval base takes shape in Cambodia

Construction of naval infrastructure at the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia is nearly complete, according to satellite imagery from US-based Blacksky.

Beijing and Phnom Penh acknowledge China has helped fund and build expansions on the base, but they deny China will have access. Cambodia even points out that hosting a foreign base would breach its constitution.

But Western intelligence has long claimed otherwise, noting Ream’s new pier is nearly identical to the one at China’s base in Djibouti. And both piers are long enough to berth China’s aircraft carriers (Cambodia has no such assets).

It’s easy to guess why China would be interested in Ream. It’d serve as:

  1. ⛽ A place for ships to refuel and resupply, enabling China’s navy to venture farther afield
  2. 💣 A safe haven in the event of conflict with the US, as Washington might hesitate to target Chinese assets in a third country, and
  3. 🚢 A springboard to control critical chokepoints, like the nearby Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia.

That last point is key: 40% of global trade (including 60% of China’s oil supply) goes through Malacca. So in the event of conflict, whoever controls the Strait (just 2.8km wide at its narrowest point) would have a leg-up.

Intrigue’s take: It’s been interesting to see how much intel the West has been willing to share publicly in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Russia repeatedly denied it was going to invade. And then it did.

US intel has likewise been pretty forward-leaning on the Ream base. But China has repeatedly denied the US accusations. So the world will be watching Ream berthing schedules with interest.

Also worth noting:

  • US Defense Secretary Austin arrives today (Wednesday) in Papua New Guinea, which just granted the US access to six military sites.
  • China initially deflected claims it was establishing its first overseas base in Djibouti (which then opened in 2017). Beijing routinely highlights Washington’s large network of military bases.