SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia — Two Chinese warships docked Sunday at a commercial port in Cambodia, in preparation for joint naval exercises between the two countries.

The Jingangshan amphibious warfare ship and Qijiguang training ship sailed in to the Sihanoukville Port as onlookers waved Cambodian and Chinese flags from the piers.

The port is north of the Ream Naval Base, where China has funded a broad expansion project that has been carefully watched by the United States and others over concerns it could become a new outpost for the Chinese navy on the Gulf of Thailand.

The Gulf is adjacent to the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety, and would give easy access to the Malacca Strait, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

Wang Wentian, China's ambassador to Cambodia, dismissed concerns about Ream, telling reporters at Sihanoukville that wherever the Chinese navy sails “we bring friendship, we bring cooperation” and nothing else.

“The cooperation between the two armies, between China and Cambodia, is conducive to the security of both countries and the security of the region,” he said, standing on the pier.

The Jingangshan and the Qijiguang are due to take part in naval exercises from the Ream base from May 24-27, along with two Chinese corvettes that have been docked at Ream's new pier for more than five months.

The joint training is the naval component of the ongoing Golden Dragon exercises, which are regularly held between the two countries.

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.

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.

As the Golden Dragon exercises opened on May 16, Cambodian army Commander in Chief Gen. Vong Pisen thanked China for providing new equipment and helping to upgrade military facilities, including the Ream Naval Base.

At the same time, he underscored Cambodia’s official position, saying the country would “not allow any foreign military base on our territory.”

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