Chinese warships have been docked in Cambodia for 5 months, but government says it's not permanent

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's Defense Ministry insisted Wednesday that the months-long presence of two Chinese warships in a strategically important naval base that is being newly expanded with funding from Beijing does not constitute a permanent deployment of the Chinese military in the country.

Questions had arisen after the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported last month that two Chinese corvettes that docked at the Ream Naval Base's new pier in December had maintained a nearly permanent presence there since.

Current satellite images, analyzed by The Associated Press, confirm that the two ships remained there on Wednesday, more than five months since they initially appeared.

The United States and others have long worried that the new pier at the Ream Naval Base, built with Chinese funding, could serve as a new outpost for the Chinese navy on the Gulf of Thailand, but Cambodia has said that would not happen.

Asked about why the two ships had been there for five months, Defense Ministry spokesperson Gen. Chhum Socheat told the AP they were due to take part in a joint Cambodian-Chinese military exercise later this month, and that they were also involved in training Cambodian sailors.

“We have been clear that Cambodia is not allowing any foreign forces to be deployed on its territory,” he said. “That won't happen; that point is in our Constitution and we are fully following it.”

He said the ships were also “testing” the new pier, and that they were on show for Cambodia, which was considering purchasing similar warships for its own navy.

“The ships are docked for the training period only, they are not staying permanently,” he said.

Controversy over Ream Naval Base initially arose in 2019 when The Wall Street Journal reported that an early draft of a reputed agreement seen by U.S. officials would allow China 30-year use of the base, where it would be able to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships.

The base sits adjacent to the South China Sea, where China has aggressively asserted its claim to virtually the entire strategic waterway, and also provides easy access to the Malacca Straits, a critical shipping route leading from it to the Indian Ocean.

The U.S. has refused to recognize China’s sweeping claim and routinely conducts military maneuvers there to reinforce that they are international waters.

Cambodia’s then-Prime Minister Hun Sen denied there was such an agreement. He pointed out that Cambodia’s Constitution does not allow foreign military bases to be established on its soil, but said visiting ships from all nations are welcome.

Defense Ministry spokesperson Chhum Socheat also said in a post on Facebook late Tuesday that the current prime minister, Hun Sen's son Hun Manet, had made similar comments in April.

In its report, however, Washington-based CSIS noted that two Japanese destroyers that had made a port call in February were routed to a different port, and that Cambodia's own boats had continued to use the base's older, smaller pier to the south.

China only operates one acknowledged foreign military base, in the impoverished but strategically important Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, but many believe that its military is busy establishing an overseas network.

The U.S. has more foreign military bases than any other country, including multiple facilities in the Asia-Pacific region.