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Chinese warships leave Cambodia’s Ream naval base

Two Chinese warships leading a training program for the Cambodian Navy since early December have left the Ream naval base, satellite imagery shows.

Images captured on Jan. 15 and provided by the U.S. earth imaging company Planet Labs show an empty berth at the new pier, where the two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) corvettes were docked for several weeks.

The ships were still seen as of Jan. 13, 2024.

The new pier at Ream Naval Base on Jan. 13, 2024 (left) with two vessels and on Jan. 15 without any vessel. (RFA via Planet Labs)

Radio Free Asia reported on Dec. 5, 2023 about the arrival of the PLA vessels – the first foreign warships to gain access to the new China-funded facility with a deep-draft pier that can accommodate aircraft carriers.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said at that time that Washington had “serious concerns” about China’s plans for exclusive control over portions of Ream Naval Base, and was watching closely.

The Chinese ships provided on-ship and in-port training to Cambodian navy staff, according to the Ream naval base’s social media.

They may have also taken part in confidence-building activities with the local navy and population, according to Carl Schuster, a retired U.S. Navy captain and former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

“All port visits have a political element,” Schuster told RFA, “Allowing ship tours to visitors from the town, working with local naval forces and meeting with local officials often are more important than the training activities.”

People-to People Exchange Year

The ships’ departure took place as Cambodia and China officially launched a new campaign to boost bilateral ties and tourism called “The 2024 Cambodia-China People-to-People Exchange Year.”

Chinese and Cambodian media reported that a launching ceremony was held last Saturday in Siem Reap. Former Defense Minister Tea Banh, now a member of the Supreme Privy Council to King Sihamoni, and Li Shulei, a member of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, presided over the event.

Tea Banh said that the campaign “will inject fresh momentum into building a high-quality, high-level and high-standard Cambodia-China community with a shared future in the new era,” according to Xinhua news agency.

Cambodian dancers.jpeg
Cambodian dancers at the launch ceremony of the 2024 Cambodia-China People-to-People Exchange Year on Jan. 13, 2024. (Tea Banh’s Facebook)

Cambodia received 2.36 million Chinese tourists in 2019, accounting for 35.7% of total international tourist arrivals.

China and Cambodia have seen a rapid development of their relationship, with Beijing providing Phnom Penh with much needed financial assistance.

Siem Reap is where a new Chinese-financed airport began operations in October.

The airport has a capacity of 7 million passengers a year and serves as a gateway to Cambodia’s most important tourist destination – the Angkor Temple complex.

The Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport was funded by a Chinese company under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative development plan. 

Another big airport near the capital Phnom Penh is also being financed and developed by China.

More than 40% of Cambodia’s US$10 billion in foreign debt is owed to China, according to the Cambodian Ministry of Economy and Finance.

For its part, Phnom Penh has become one of Beijing’s vocal supporters. After the weekend’s elections in Taiwan, Cambodia immediately “reaffirmed its strong support for the One-China policy.”

“In light of the recent developments in Taiwan, the Ministry reiterates Cambodia’s resolute adherence to the One China policy, recognising the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate authority representing the entirety of China,” Foreign ministry’s spokesman An Sokhoeun was quoted as saying by local media.

Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.