The potential establishment of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia has received extensive attention since the publication of report by the Wall Street Journal in mid-2019, claiming that Cambodia had signed a secret agreement granting the People’s Liberation Army Navy access to the Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. Much of this attention has been devoted to speculation over what this means in terms of Cambodia’s relationship with China and the United States, and also its potential to augment China’s expanding military presence in the region.
The attention paid to the possible Chinese access to Cambodian naval facilities, however, too often ignores the realities of Cambodia’s geography. As we know, geography is crucial to understanding the strategic significance of military operations, and has profoundly informed the capabilities, limitations, and vulnerabilities of armed forces throughout human history. In this specific case, the geography of Cambodia suggests that China does not stand to gain much strategic advantage by equipping military facilities on the Kingdom’s shores.
Most notably, the waters off Cambodia’s coasts are not deep enough to be useful to a powerful navy. These waters, in the Gulf of Thailand, are on average about 50 meters deep. Where this base is allegedly to be situated, on the bay of Kampong Som, the water is only five to 10 meters deep.