Phnom Penh—The arrival of two Chinese naval vessels at Cambodia’s Ream naval base has reignited concerns about deepening ties between Cambodia and the Chinese military. The visit follows Thailand’s push this week for stronger relations with Cambodia, raising questions about regional dynamics and alliances.

The presence of two Chinese naval vessels at Cambodia’s Ream naval base this week has again sparked long-standing anxiety about deepening cooperation between Thailand’s Eastern neighbour and the Chinese military.

Cambodian General Somdet Pichaisena Tia Ban at Ream naval base on the Gulf of Thailand near Sihanoukville after ships of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy docked.

As Thailand promotes stronger ties between itself and Cambodia including military cooperation following a visit on Saturday last 2nd December by Minister of Defence Sutin Klangsaeng, concerns have been raised again this week among Western security analysts following the presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy at the controversial Ream naval base.

A top Cambodian military officer, General Somdet Pichaisena Tia Ban recently visited the strategically important naval facility, near Sihanoukville and on the Gulf of Thailand.

Cambodian military lays out the red carpet for visiting Chinese naval vessel at the newly renovated Ream Naval Base as analysts assess military ties

The occasion was the docking of two Chinese People’s Liberation Army warships at the facility. The lack of an official announcement from Cambodia raises questions about the nature of this military cooperation.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin emphasised the deep connection between China and Cambodia during a press conference in Beijing, citing rapid and successful developments in their multifaceted relationship.

This revelation comes amid the visit of General He Weidong, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, to Phnom Penh.

The Ream Naval Base has been under scrutiny since July, with US spy satellites detecting ongoing infrastructural development.

Notably, a 363-metre-long pier resembling a deep-sea port was constructed. Speculation arose that the first ship to dock would be a Chinese warship travelling from Djibouti.

United States believes China and Cambodia have a ‘secret’ pact with Cambodia now being seen as an arm of China in both military and diplomatic terms

Certainly, the United States has long suspected a ‘secret deal’ between Cambodia and China, with claims that China may use the base for up to 30 years, deploying unlimited warships and personnel. 

Increased US naval presence and operations as China expands its footprint near Thailand including a naval base being constructed in the Gulf of Thailand

These suspicions gained traction in 2022 when China and Cambodia initiated a Chinese-funded project to revamp the Ream naval base. The US expressed concern, and tensions rose with the dismantling of facilities previously financed by the US.

Previously, in a significant development earlier this year, China and Cambodia conducted their first naval drills in Cambodian waters, named ‘China-Cambodia Golden Dragon 2023.’

The drills involved over 3,000 personnel and 300 vehicles, symbolising the deepening military ties between the two nations.

Cambodia’s growing reliance on China, both economically and militarily, has strained its relationships with other Southeast Asian nations and raised concerns globally. 

China is at loggerheads with other countries in Southeast Asia and ASEAN over growing South China Sea claims at sea as well as with the US and Australia

China’s extensive and growing claims in the South China Sea have sparked tensions in the region, and Cambodia’s close association with Beijing has also strained its ties with the United States and Australia.

Furthermore, Beijing’s economic support, including substantial foreign direct investment, loans, and assistance for infrastructure projects, has made Cambodia increasingly dependent on its communist neighbour. However, this support comes at a cost, influencing Cambodia’s diplomatic and defence cooperation with China.

The Ream naval base, a focal point of China-Cambodia cooperation, continues to see extensive Chinese capital investment.

Despite Cambodia’s debt to China reaching over 25% of its GDP, with current estimates nearing 40%, the country remains entangled in financial agreements that may be linked to its diplomatic and military alignment.

At length, China’s strategic interest in the Ream naval base, located in the Gulf of Thailand, raises concerns about its potential use as a waystation for naval operations.

The recent embargo by the US on arms exports to Cambodia reflects growing apprehension over China’s expanding military influence both in the region and especially in Cambodia.

New young leader Prime Minister Hun Manet does little to deflect from what is happening with most observers believing that Hun Sen remains powerful

The recent political landscape in Cambodia, with Hun Manet succeeding his father Hun Sen as prime minister, mirrors the dynastic leadership seen in North Korea. 

Additionally, As Cambodia becomes increasingly isolated from the international community, its reliance on China for economic and military support deepens.

Despite promises of non-interference by Hun Sen, who assumes the role of president of the Senate, concerns persist about China’s leverage within ASEAN through Cambodia. 

The growing military cooperation and deepening economic ties continue to shape Cambodia’s foreign policy, with implications for regional stability as tensions between China and other Asean nations come to the surface. 

At the same time, as Cambodia treads cautiously, balancing relationships with both China and other ASEAN members becomes a delicate diplomatic challenge not only for its leadership but also for Thailand which is suffering from heightened geopolitical tensions between China and the United States as well as other Western allies.

ASEAN is increasingly troubled with simmering tension between member states and China as geopolitical fault lines grow leaving Thailand in a pickle

Significantly, the naval operations of an expanding People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy are at the heart of simmering tensions in Southeast Asia with several ASEAN members engaged in simmering conflict with Beijing including Vietnam, Indonesia and most notably, the Philippines.

Ironclad partnership heralded as Marcos visits Washington amid raised South China Sea tensions

This week, in a wide-ranging speech, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin warned of world wars being fought not yet with guns.

The growing and troublesome fault lines across the world which are certainly surfacing in the Indo-Pacific, pose not only an economic headache for Thailand but also a growing, if unacknowledged, security threat.

Mr Srettha was referring to America’s trade war with China which has been ramped up since 2017, a policy which has severely impacted Thailand’s economy and one that could at any moment, turn into something even more disastrous, a hot war.

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