On June 6, the Washington Post published a report claiming that part of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base had been reserved for the exclusive use of the Chinese armed forces. The report was based on interviews with Western and Chinese officials whose names and identities remain anonymous. This latest report seems to confirm a 2019 report by The Wall Street Journal that accused Cambodia of signing a secret military agreement with China, granting it access to Ream.
Speculations about a possible Chinese military presence on Cambodian soil have drawn attention and reactions from neighboring countries and other powers. For instance, in June 2021, Vietnam established a militia squadron in Kien Giang province, which borders 200 kilometers of Cambodia’s coastline. The new unit is tasked with patrolling and reconnaissance, with the presumed aim of collecting information regarding the future Chinese military base at Ream. In late 2021, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited several Southeast Asian countries including Cambodia. Her main purpose was to address the rumor that China has been granted exclusive access to the naval base. On June 7, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn had a phone conversation with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in which the Ream military base was a main topic of discussion.
Nevertheless, the Washington Post report provided no clear evidence of Chinese military assets in Cambodia. Indeed, the report seems to contradict Cambodia’s current foreign policy approach. To assess whether Cambodia is gearing up to host foreign military assets and personnel, in violation of its Constitution, we need to examine Cambodia’s current relations with its neighboring countries, particularly Thailand and Vietnam. We also need to take into consideration the approach that Cambodia has taken toward regional and international issues as the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).