Two Chinese navy ships have now spent over four months at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, the first and only two ships to have docked at a new pier built at the base with Chinese funding. This extended and exclusive access to the new pier comes after years of concerns expressed by the United States and others over a rumored secret agreement between Bejiing and Phnom Penh to establish a permanent Chinese military presence at Ream, raising the question of whether that presence has now, in fact, been established.

A Permanent Presence?

The two Chinese warships were first seen at Ream on December 3 in a Facebook post by Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Seiha saying that the ships were there for training engagements with the Cambodian navy. In January, it was reported by Radio Free Asia that they had left the base, before they were spotted again in March imagery of Ream in a report by Nikkei.

But commercial satellite imagery examined by AMTI shows that, in fact, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships never left Ream, and have now maintained a consistent presence for over four months.

The two PLAN corvettes, seen docked at Ream’s new pier on (clockwise from top left): December 14, January 22, February 15, March 10

The PLAN ships are visible docked at Ream’s new pier in 93 percent (85 of 91) of dates with clear imagery available since the ships initially docked there on December 3. The pier was only seen empty for two brief periods from January 15-18 and March 29-30.

The two PLAN corvettes docked at Ream, April 7, 2024

Satellite imagery also showed no other ships, including any Cambodian vessels, docking at the new pier, which was completed last year to enable larger warships to dock in Ream’s shallow waters. While previous language from then prime minister Hun Sen had claimed that the base’s upgraded facilities would be open to visits from all navies, two Japanese destroyers that made a port call in February were routed to Sihanoukville Autonomous Port rather than Ream. Cambodian boats at Ream have continued to cluster at the base’s older, smaller pier to the south.

New Construction

Construction in the rest of Ream Naval Base has progressed by leaps and bounds since AMTI’s last examination, with some key upgrades now nearing completion.

In the southwest, a new wharf and drydock are taking shape that would further expand available docking capacity and enable maintenance and repair operations on larger ships.

Large land clearings in the north and northwest of the base have now been filled in with warehouses, administrative complexes, and what appear to be living quarters—complete with four regulation-size basketball courts.

Along the northwestern coast, in an area that housed U.S. and Australian-funded facilities before they were taken down in 2020 amidst Chinese-funded upgrades, over a dozen buildings constructed between 2020 and 2022 have been demolished and the area paved with concrete, suggesting changing plans for the area. A fence and two watchtowers have been completed along the base’s northeast border.

And in the southwest, over 60 acres of land have been cleared for new construction in what was previously an unused area covered in vegetation.

What Does Access Look Like?

In the years since the rumored deal between Beijing and Phnom Penh was first reported on in 2019, the scale of Chinese-funded construction at the base had become clear. But only now, with the long-term presence of two PLAN corvettes, has there been a visible sign of privileged access for China’s military. But does four months of continuous presence from two ships really mean that Ream is a Chinese naval base?

Ultimately, the degree of China’s access to Ream will be borne out over the coming months and years—and will be seen in satellite imagery. At some point, the two PLAN corvettes that have been at Ream since December will leave. Whether they are replaced with other Chinese ships, how long those ships stay, and whether other navies are afforded the same opportunities will all speak volumes about the true nature of the relationship between China’s navy and Ream.