The Chinese Navy is massive. And depending on how you count your warships, has the largest navy on Earth, even bigger than the mighty U.S. Navy. However, Beijing has a problem, they only have one overseas base, limiting their ability to deploy far. That may soon change: China is secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia that would help extend its military’s currently limited reach in foreign waters, The Washington Post reported, citing Western officials.
However, China currently has only one foreign naval base — in Djibouti in East Africa.
“As impressive as those numbers are, without a significant network of robust overseas facilities, their ability to use them falls off rapidly with distance from China,” Andrew Erickson, research director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College, told The Post.
The project in Cambodia would give China a foothold in Southeast Asia and a position in the western region of the South China Sea — part of Beijing’s ambition to grow its military influence worldwide, Western officials told The Post.
The base is to be built on the northern portion of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, and the groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for next week, the officials said, per The Post.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that China had struck a secret deal with Cambodia to allow its forces to use the base and stock weapons there, though Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denied the deal’s existence.
Further questions of China’s involvement in Ream Naval Base resurfaced last year when satellite imagery showed that two buildings at Ream Naval Base had been rapidly constructed on top of demolished US-funded facilities, indicating that Cambodia was seeking funds from China instead of Washington.
A top-ranking Cambodian naval official told Nikkei at the time that China was merely helping to build the base, and said it wasn’t meant for Beijing’s use.
However, The Post’s reported that a Chinese official in Beijing confirmed at least “a portion of the base” would be used by the Chinese military, though the official insisted that the base wouldn’t be for China’s exclusive use and will also host scientists.
Cambodia and China have worked to hide their collaboration at Ream, going so far as to order Chinese personnel to take off their uniforms or wear ones that resemble Cambodian military attire whenever foreign delegations visit the base, the Western officials told The Post.
For example, when US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Ream, she was allowed access to only a limited number of preapproved locations, one official said, the outlet reported.
Ream Naval Base is not the only location where China seeks to have a military presence. In November, The Journal reported that Beijing had reached a secret deal with the United Arab Emirates to build a suspected military facility at a port near Abu Dhabi.
The current status of the Emirati facility is unclear following the US’ scrutiny of the project, The Post reported.
Matthew Loh is a breaking news reporter in Insider’s Singapore bureau.