Cambodia, China and the Dara Sakor Dilemma

China gaining access to an airfield in Cambodia, or anywhere else in mainland Southeast Asia, would redraw the strategic landscape of the region.

News of Cambodia’s recent demolition of a U.S.-built facility at the Ream Naval Base has once again raised suspicions that the country’s government is preparing to hand the base over to China, for use by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Were it to eventuate, such a facility would augment the PLAN’s burgeoning expeditionary capability, which has recently expanded elsewhere. But with the flare-up in interest around Ream, it would be wise to revisit the more overlooked question of Dara Sakor – a possible alternative project that would arguably be a more important potential asset for China’s military. After considering the two in tandem, one can see just how significant China’s push for a military footprint in mainland Southeast Asia would be for the region.

There is still no concrete evidence that PLAN warships will wind up at Ream Naval Base. But the ongoing caginess of Cambodian officials, and a Wall Street Journal article from July 2019 detailing a secret agreement between Beijing and Phnom Penh granting China access to the base, does mean the possibility needs to be considered.

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