Construction continues at Ream Naval Base amid concerns that the new facilities are being built to facilitate a Chinese military presence in Cambodia. Over the course of August and September, three new buildings have gone up and a new road has been cleared, among other changes.
Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs shows that between August 9 and 22, two new buildings were constructed toward the north of the base. These are just next to two built in the spring.
In late August, work began on a new road from Ream’s southeast gate to the coastal area housing the new facilities. That work was ongoing as of early October. Clearing work also began in August on a path stretching from the southeast end of the new roadway, around the back of a Vietnam-funded hospital north of the road, and then due west. This second potential roadway is on course to intersect a large area of ground that Cambodia cleared and then fenced off in 2019, just before the news of the Chinese access agreement broke. What, if anything, will be built in that area remains unclear.
Several other changes occurred on the base during August and September. The northern section of coast alongside the new buildings has been cleared of foliage. A line of trees that previously stood south of the newly constructed buildings was cleared and a small 40 by 26-foot building constructed on the site. And farther south, where the U.S.-funded Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security stood until last fall, another line of trees has been cleared and a channel dug.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman raised concerns about the rapid construction at Ream during her June 1 visit to Phnom Penh. In response, Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh admitted that China was helping build infrastructure at the base but said it came with “no strings attached.” When U.S. officials took up an offer from Prime Minister Hun Sen to visit the base on June 4, however, they said they were denied full access. Since then, China-backed construction has continued to transform the northern half of Ream Naval Base.
Counterclockwise from top left: Ream on July 23, 2020, with U.S.-funded facilities still standing; on May 21, 2021, after U.S.-funded facilities were demolished and new construction in the north begun; on October 3, with construction continuing and new roads being cleared
Originally published May 29, 2021:
Satellite imagery reveals that two new buildings have been rapidly constructed at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, just north of the site of U.S.-funded facilities that were demolished by the Cambodian government last year (see below). The new buildings appear to have been completed just days before Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is slated to arrive in Phnom Penh as part of the Biden administration’s first high-level trip to the region.
The buildings measure approximately 115 feet long and 20 feet wide. Available imagery indicates that land clearing began sometime after April 17, construction started in early May, and the structures were complete by May 21. A top admiral in the Royal Cambodian Navy, Vann Bunlieng, said last October that preparations were being made for Chinese-funded upgrades to Ream. It seems likely that the new buildings are a part of those expansions, which will reportedly include a newly dredged port and a ship repair facility.
Counterclockwise from top left: Ream on July 23, 2020, with U.S.-funded facilities still standing; on December 19, after U.S.-funded facilities were demolished; on May 21, 2021, after the new construction toward the northern end of the base
Cambodian officials have said the demolition of the U.S.-funded Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security last year was unrelated to any Chinese construction plans. They claimed the facility was being relocated to a more suitable location about 20 miles away near Sihanoukville. Among other things, the new site was said to provide more room for infrastructure expansions—a claim hard to square with the headquarters’ new home on tiny Koh Preab island. Recent imagery does show three new buildings going up at the site, but at a much more leisurely pace than the larger construction just completed at Ream.
The breakneck pace of construction at Ream, lack of transparency, and shifting explanations from Cambodian officials continue to fuel suspicions that the upgrades there are intended for China’s benefit as much as Cambodia’s. And those worries will likely be high on the list of issues raised by Deputy Secretary Sherman in Phnom Penh.
Originally published November 9, 2020:
Another U.S.-built facility at Ream naval base has been demolished, as revealed by recent satellite imagery from Planet and Maxar.
Before and after: Satellite imagery shows the Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat Maintenance Facility at Ream naval base was still standing on October 1 but had been completely dismantled by November 4.
The National Committee for Maritime Security Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) Maintenance Facility and adjoining boat ramp were constructed in 2017. They were located just north of the committee’s Tactical Headquarters, which Cambodian authorities knocked down in early September.
The now-dismantled RHIB maintenance facility when it was completed in 2017. Photo: NAVFAC Pacific
An analysis of satellite imagery indicates that demolition work on the RHIB maintenance facility began in late October and was completed by November 2, at the latest. An image from October 26 shows the work in progress, with boats moved outside and the roof partially removed:
The building was deconstructed in stages, not just knocked down. Its red roof tiles, found on most facilities at Ream, were carefully removed before the roof and walls were taken down. This might support claims from the Cambodian government that facilities at Ream are being relocated, or it could just be that more valuable building materials were being salvaged for reuse. Claims from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office that buildings are being taken down for renovation are unconvincing given that the RHIB maintenance facility was constructed just three years ago.
Originally published October 2, 2020:
The Cambodian government has demolished a U.S.-built facility at the country’s Ream Naval Base, according to satellite imagery collected on October 1. The demolition occurred sometime after September 5—likely around September 10—though imagery of sufficient resolution to confirm was not available at that time. The building was one of several U.S.-funded facilities on the base which were reportedly to be relocated after Cambodia struck a secret deal to grant China access to Ream. The recent demolition seems to confirm that changes are underway at the naval base and again raises questions about rumored Chinese access.
U.S.-built facilities at Ream Naval Base, October 1, 2020
The Wall Street Journal reported in July 2019 that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement giving China access to Ream in return for the construction of new infrastructure at the base. The report cited unnamed U.S. officials who had seen an early draft of the agreement. It reportedly allowed access for Chinese troops, weapons, and ships for 30 years with an automatic renewal every 10 years thereafter. The Journal reported that Washington’s suspicions grew after Cambodia refused U.S. funding to repair facilities at Ream, which Phnom Penh had requested in the first place. Joseph Felter, then U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, had sent a letter to Cambodia’s defense minister asking for more information about the decision on June 24, 2019. Reuters reported on July 1 that a Cambodian defense ministry spokesperson said, “At Ream, perhaps, there will be some changes in the future.”
The building demolished last month was the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security. Officially inaugurated in 2012, it was renovated and built by the United States and equipped by Australia. The larger building to its north, which is still standing, is the Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) Ramp and Boat Maintenance Facility, built by the United States in 2017. That is the building Felter said Cambodian officials first asked for and then refused U.S. help to repair.
Left: The headquarters building as it stood on August 22; Right: The demolished site on October 1
Following the Wall Street Journal’s report, Cambodian officials denied the existence of a deal, with Prime Minister Hun Sen calling it “the worst-ever made-up news against Cambodia” and citing the Cambodian constitution, which forbids the hosting of foreign military bases in the country. He had given a similar response in November 2018 when Vice President Mike Pence sent a letter raising concerns over possible Chinese basing in Cambodia. As recently as June, Hun Sen denied plans for a Chinese military facility and said Ream welcomes ships from “any country” to dock.
Large tracts of land all around Ream Naval Base have been leased by Chinese companies, some with connections to Beijing, for resort development. One of these is Canopy Sands Development Group, a subsidiary of Prince Real Estate Group, which is developing the stretch of Ream Bay directly north of the naval base. Satellite imagery shows that the company began reclaiming land about three miles north of the base in February. It has so far created about 100 acres of new landfill for an unknown purpose.
Land reclamation at Ream Bay, August 22, 2020
The Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction also announced in February that Ream Bay would be the site of a $16 billion resort project. The dredging, which started just four days after that project was announced, is presumably part of the resort development—perhaps the beginning of port infrastructure. But with current facilities at Ream Naval Base only able to host small patrol ships, any large port development nearby bears watching.