Satellite photos show more construction at military base where US has 'serious concerns' about China's presence

A crew of Cambodian navy personnel at Ream naval base, during a government-led media trip, July 26, 2019. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images
It appears that Cambodia continued to build at its Ream naval base during August and September.

The US government is concerned about the work, as it suspects that it could be preparation for China's military use of the base.

The government of Cambodia has not provided any details about the purpose of the work, a sign that it is frustrated by US policies.

In August and September, Cambodia continued work on its Ream naval base. The US is concerned that this could lead to a Chinese military presence at a strategically important corner of Southeast Asia.

Satellite photos by Maxar and Planet Labs, published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, show that two new buildings have been built at the base's north end between August 9th and 22nd. The buildings were also removed from the coast.

Ream has two new buildings, as seen on October 3, 2021. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar

Late August saw workers begin building a road that would connect the southeast gate of the base to the coast, where the new buildings will be located.

August saw Cambodia also begin to clear a path that would lead off the new road toward an area that was cleared in 2019 and surrounded with a fence. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, it's not clear what the fenced-in area will serve.

Ream Naval Base has a new road cleared, as seen on October 3, 2021. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar

As of October, work on the new road was still ongoing and is expected to lead to a new building along the coast.

Before construction began, a line of trees had to be cleared. The building is 40 feet by 26ft smaller than other new buildings.

Ream Naval Base is under construction, as seen on October 3, 2021. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar

A new channel has been created south of the new building.

This work was done near the site of the former Tactical Headquarters for the National Committee for Maritime Security. It was a US-funded building, which was opened in 2012 but was unexpectedly demolished in Sept 2020.

A nearby US-funded building, the Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat Maintenance Facility, was also demolished in October 2020.

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Ream Naval Base is under construction, as seen on October 3, 2021. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar

Concerns have been raised about the construction and demolition of Ream, raising concerns about a report in 2019 that reveals a secret deal between China and Beijing, which allowed Beijing to store weapons and station military personnel.

Officials from Cambodia admit that China is supporting work at the base. This includes dredging to make it deeper. However, they insist there is no deal and China will not have a military presence in the area.

The buildings constructed in August are located next to the two buildings that were built in April and May. These buildings were completed days before Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State, arrived for an official visit.

Sherman expressed serious concerns about China's military presence at the base and its construction of facilities while he was there.

A spokesperson for the State Department told Insider that there was "substantial open source evidence" that China is working to renovate Ream. "Reports credible suggest that this will include an area of exclusive control" by China's military.

ATMI stated earlier this year that there is suspicion that the upgrades are for China's benefit, as well as Cambodia's, due to the lack of transparency and shifting explanations.

Ream Naval Base, July 2017: The US-built Rigid-Hulled Inflatable boat ramp and Boat Maintenance Facility. Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific/Facebook

Ream is a reflection of the frustrations expressed by Cambodians with the US.

Washington has stressed human rights in its dealings in Phnom Penh. This contrasts with its embrace of Vietnam, Thailand and other countries where US strategic interests seem to be more important, according to Charles Dunst from Eurasia Group's Global Macro.

This has "alienated” Prime Minister Hun Sen. He used to partner with the US on counterterrorism issues, but he resents being treated differently from his neighbors, Dunst said to Insider.

Sen, who has been in power since 1985 from China, has received strong political support, extensive investment and aid from China. Some observers have described Sen to be an authoritarian in a one-party state. Dunst stated that China will return economic access, political backing, and increasingly military cooperation in exchange for China's control over Ream and Chinese construction.

When asked by reporters Wednesday about the latest construction, the State Department didn't immediately respond. However, a US Embassy spokesperson said that Cambodia had not been "fully transparent about the intention, nature and scope of the project" or the involvement of China's military.

The spokesman stated that the Cambodian people should be informed about the Ream project and have an opportunity to participate in any type of military agreement.

A government-led media tour to the Ream naval base was conducted by Cambodian naval personnel and journalists on July 26, 2019. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images

An outpost military in Cambodia would not give Beijing any new power-projection capabilities. The maritime geography around Ream also limits the ability of naval forces to operate in that area.

However, military access to Ream and nearby sites could enable China to project power, particularly air power, into the Gulf of Thailand, and the waterways linking the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean in ways that it hasn’t been able before.

This access would also increase China's military presence in the Parcel Islands and Spratly Islands to draw an area around mainland Southeast Asia," Dunst stated. It could allow Beijing to counter US attempts to reach Taiwan with support during a crisis.

Dunst explained to Insider that Cambodia, once considered a strategically insignificant country Washington could target with a values-based policy, is now strategically important.

Business Insider has the original article.