Chinese warships plan visit to Cambodia amid US worries

BEIJING (Reuters) – China will send two warships to Cambodia and East Timor from the first half of May to mid-June, its defence ministry said, potentially further unnerving the United States over concerns about growing Chinese presence at a key Cambodian naval base.

China will send its largest naval training ship Qijiguang along with a giant amphibious warfare ship Jinggangshan to the two countries for training with local naval cadets to enhance mutual trust between their navies, the Chinese defence ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

The Jinggangshan dock landing ship is capable of transporting helicopters, armoured vehicles, boats and landing craft as well as nearly 1,000 troops. Qijiguang is smaller but is China’s technologically most advanced military training vessel.

China did not say where the vessels will be based while in Cambodia and East Timor.

But the visit of the Chinese ships could further fuel U.S. concerns about the presence of Chinese warships at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, whose recent expansion has been backed by China.

Cambodia’s decision to allow China to develop Ream, located at a key waterway on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville province, has upset Washington worried that it will give Beijing a new outpost near the contested South China Sea, most of which are claimed by China.

Before a China-funded upgrade began in June 2022, Ream had been the site of some joint naval training and exercises between the United States and Cambodia. Cambodia demolished the U.S.-built facility in October 2020.

Another two Chinese warships, likely corvettes or frigates, have been docked at Ream since December. Cambodia’s defence ministry insisted on Wednesday that their presence does not constitute a permanent deployment of the Chinese military in the country.

China has been boosting its “ironclad” friendship with the Southeastern Asian country, amid high-level state and military leader exchanges since last year.

Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun in March met with Deputy Commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and Commander of the Royal Cambodian Army Mao Sophan in Beijing, with both pledging further military cooperation.

(Reporting by Albee Zhang and Ryan Woo; Editing by Michael Perry)