Reports of a planned Chinese military base in Cambodia have been swirling around Southeast Asia for several years. On June 8, Cambodian and Chinese officials broke ground on an expansion of Ream Naval Base, with plans for new buildings as well as other improvements to the base’s port facility. Both sides continue to deny that the secretive deal includes any concession for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to use the facility, a claim that is being loudly challenged by U.S. policymakers who believe it will be used as a forward base for Beijing’s navy.
But even if the base ends up being used by the PLAN, hysterical moves—such as scolding the government and sanctioning its officials—are an overreaction that is only the latest in a long line of U.S. failures to interact productively with partners in Southeast Asia. It’s a particularly tone-deaf attitude when considering the United States’ own legacy in Cambodia. Although there are likely parts of this deal hidden from the public, this arrangement highlights a common shortfall in Washington’s Asia policy, namely attacking countries for making bilateral deals with China without putting a credible offer of its own on the table.
Ream Naval Base is well known to U.S. forces and was the site of multiple bilateral exercises between the U.S. Navy and Royal Cambodian Navy between 2010 and 2016. In fact, the United States had funded and built a facility for the Royal Cambodian Navy’s use on Ream Naval Base in 2012. However, as bilateral relations deteriorated and whispers of Chinese involvement on the base began to circulate, Cambodian forces demolished the structures in 2020.