Ream Naval Base: China’s Strategic Foothold in Indo-Pacific to Encircle India?

China's increasing naval presence at Cambodia's Ream Naval Base stokes fears of it becoming another overseas military outpost, allowing Beijing to project power in the Indo-Pacific and encircle India.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

In recent years, China has continuously stirred up trouble in the border areas between China and India. Although India has engaged in multiple rounds of negotiations with China, they have proven to be ineffective. China is also attempting to form a containment circle against India in the Indian Ocean region. Chinese PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) naval vessels have recently appeared at the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia. The latest confirmation came on March 20th, when at least two Chinese warships entered Ream. India and the rest of the free world are deeply concerned about this development, believing that China is using the pretext of assistance to establish its exclusive naval bases abroad, and the Ream Naval Base could become another Djibouti. The Chinese warships may pose a threat to regional security and stability.

Photos obtained by Nikkei Asia show that in December last year, Chinese warships were discovered visiting Ream for the first time. The most recent visit was on March 20th, one of which was the “Wenshan” class frigate flying the Chinese People’s Liberation Army flag. Ream Base can potentially allow the PLAN to deploy military ships in the South China Sea in the shortest possible time.

In July 2023, the Financial Times reported that, according to satellite image analysis, the Chinese-built Ream Naval Base was nearing completion. Furthermore, in terms of size and design, it resembles China’s base in Djibouti. Experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies even pointed out an area as long as 335 meters, sufficient for accommodating aircraft carriers.

In November 2023, Thai media indicated that the already large shipyard was expanding to accommodate a large aircraft carrier. The size of the shipyard could mean that China’s Navy will also have a semi-permanent presence in the country. Cambodia’s small navy lacks ships requiring such extensive equipment.

A carrier-sized pier at the Ream base and dry dock facilities will expand the PLAN’s presence in the Bay of Bengal and affect the balance of power in the region. Fleet expansion, especially in expeditionary long-range operations, has become a priority for China. It is actively working on maritime issues, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region and the South China Sea.

These facilities will enable military ships and coast guard vessels to be deployed across the region in the shortest possible time. Access to Southeast Asian sea lanes, such as the crucial Malacca Strait, will strengthen logistics and reconnaissance.

The governments of China and Cambodia previously denied reports that Cambodia would allow Chinese military presence at the Ream naval base in the Gulf of Thailand.

Cambodia confirmed receiving assistance for constructing facilities but stated they are intended for national defense. The groundbreaking ceremony for the naval base occurred in 2022, and the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia was also present.

Cambodia is the closest country to Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region, which has long been “courting” Prime Minister Hun Sen with billions of dollars in the form of dubious infrastructure loans and development projects involving close friends. The US and Cambodia are drifting apart. In 2017, the then-US ambassador to Cambodia, William Heidt, stated that the Cambodian government was “not interested in positive relations” with the US.

The United States believes this location could be developed into a Chinese Navy forward naval base. During a February meeting with the Cambodian prime minister, State Department officials in charge of East Asian affairs conveyed “serious concerns” regarding the Chinese military’s use of the Ream base. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 056A frigates visited the Ream Naval Base. These maritime vessels are predominantly employed for defensive purposes near the coast and lack robust capabilities for long-range operations.

The activation of the Ream base will help China stabilize the situation in the South China Sea. Geographically, China will have a strategic location near the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. The Ream Naval Base complements several artificial islands and reefs built by China in the South China Sea, allowing mutual support during critical times. The Strait of Malacca is a strategic chokepoint connecting the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region, traditionally under the control of the US military, which is detrimental to China. With the Ream Naval Base, China can strengthen its military intervention capabilities in the Strait of Malacca, safeguarding its maritime interests.

Looking at the entire Indo-Pacific region, China has also strengthened military ties with neighboring countries of India—Pakistan, the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and now Cambodia. China’s strategic encirclement of India has become tighter. This would allow China to concentrate its resources on dealing with the United States and addressing issues in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

According to the Pentagon’s 2023 report on the military power of the PLA, China plans to expand its network of military bases beyond Cambodia. China has clearly considered other countries to expand its military logistical capabilities, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, the UAE, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, Nigeria, the Solomon Islands, and Tajikistan.


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