Re-centering Cambodian Interests in the Ream Naval Base Debate

Much discussion about China’s role in the refurbishment of the base has overlooked Phnom Penh’s own economic and security imperatives.

Cambodia’s ironclad friendship with China is once again in the regional spotlight with news that the Chinese-funded renovation of the Ream Naval Base on the country’s south coast is nearly finished. The controversy over the deep-sea port at the naval base revolves around its potential for hosting aircraft carriers and other vessels from the Chinese navy in a challenge to the U.S. naval presence in Southeast Asia. On July 24, the Financial Times referred to it as a “Chinese base in Cambodia.” But where do Cambodia and its interests fit into the discussion?

As some have already pointed out, understanding the development of the naval base through the lens of Sino-American competition risks assuming that Cambodia lacks agency in its own foreign policy. Other regional experts have noted that the Cambodian government’s surprising and repeated condemnation of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine demonstrates a concerted effort to reduce its dependence on Chinese influence and improve its relations with the West. Therefore, largely absent from the debate on the naval base are the national interests of the Cambodian government, particularly its desire to enhance the capabilities and facilities of the Royal Cambodian Navy, and the broader context of economic development.

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