One of the major storylines around the recently-concluded round of ASEAN summitry in Singapore was a new round of international speculation over old fears about the establishment of a Chinese navy base in Cambodia. The concerns around a shadowy, decade-old port project that has proceeded in fits and starts, are not new, and the raising of the issue by U.S. diplomats directly with Cambodia have led to the typical semantic debates about what constitutes a “base” or “military use.” In reality, the recent controversy ought to focus attention on, rather than distract from, the broader issue that deserves attention, which is Beijing’s deepening military inroads into Cambodia in recent years and the concerns that this trend raises.
The idea of a deepening Chinese security presence in Cambodia is not new, and nor are the allegations about Beijing’s intentions. China has long been a key defense partner for Hun Sen’s Cambodia, including its top provider of military equipment. Beijing has also long paid attention to the naval realm of ties, providing support for the development of Cambodia’s naval capabilities including financing for the purchase of patrol boats and upgrades to Ream Naval Base – which, even at the time, had raised issues about this being part of Beijing’s so-called string of pearls strategy in what is now being termed the Indo-Pacific.
Of particular note in recent years has been Chinese involvement in the construction of a port in the traditionally remote Koh Kong province in Cambodia along the Gulf of Thailand. For years, there has been scrutiny on the port aspect of a wider, $3.8 billion-land project begun over a decade ago, led by China’s Tianjin Union Development Group (UDG) operating under an initial 99-year lease by the government – amid a range of wider concerns that have been expressed including a shift to growing Chinese ownership, an increase in land size, and a creeping broadening of project scope. Although no Chinese military role has been publicly confirmed and the project is yet to be finished, it is said to be deep enough to potentially accommodate not just container ships, but Chinese navy frigates and destroyers as well. That would not be an insignificant development geostrategically: apart from the fact that the location along the Gulf of Thailand would give Beijing a hub in mainland Southeast Asia, it is also an opening into the South China Sea and wider sea lines of of communication as well.
But while these concerns may be old, new dynamics in recent years have deepened them still further. As with other cases in the Asia-Pacific in recent years, deepening Chinese economic and security presence in Cambodia has compounded preexisting concerns about its potential military presence in these countries. Particularly during the run-up to the Cambodian elections held in June this year, Chinese military presence in Cambodia had been repeatedly scrutinized as part of wider suspicions of nefarious activities, including quiet deliveries of rounds of military equipment and Beijing’s potential role in the suspension of some aspects of U.S.-Cambodia security cooperation (See: “The Truth About US-China Competition in Cambodia“).
Beijing’s growing economic footprint has also been in the spotlight, with it now believed to account for about half of Cambodia’s $6 billion in foreign debt and concerns persisting about the local effects of China’s presence in the country even as Cambodia continues to be viewed as a key country within Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The port project in question has grown in significance as well amid all of this, with it being linked to the BRI, labeled part of an ambitious, wide-ranging “Pilot Zone” by Hun Sen with several infrastructure and commercial projects in mind, and being increasingly linked to nearby Sihanoukville which has also emerged as a hub of Chinese influence in Cambodia (See: “The Real Trouble With China’s Belt and Road“).
Alongside these more hyped storylines has come real deepening in China-Cambodia military ties, as I have repeatedly noted in these pages. These include, among other things, first military exercises in 2016, greater cooperation in the naval realm, more direct displays of Chinese military equipment to the wider Cambodian public, and bigger and more public Chinese investments in Cambodian military infrastructure and facilities. At times, these activities have been timed to coincide with certain developments in Cambodian domestic politics and foreign policy as well as wider regional events, thereby reinforcing their function as a signal for both sides.
Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the latest round of scrutiny on the notion of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia with reference to the port project mentioned earlier. Following media reports on the subject, the issue escalated and gained greater official diplomatic attention with U.S. officials directly raising the issue with Cambodia, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen receiving a letter from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Hun Sen and other Cambodian officials have unsurprisingly refuted the allegations, arguing that they represent the latest illustration of foreign hype over Chinese presence and that, in any case, Cambodian constitution does not allow foreign military bases on Cambodian soil (despite the fact that the Hun Sen government has faced no shortage of allegations of legal transgressions in the past).
To be sure, there are reasons to be cautious about accounts that portray a one-sided tale of Cambodia being a passive Chinese pawn in a major power chessboard. Cambodia has long had its own reasons to draw on Chinese military support beyond supporting Beijing’s strategic designs. China’s boosts to Cambodia’s weak maritime capabilities help Phnom Penh develop the ability to protect its interests, including offshore energy fields. Having China’s support more generally is useful for Hun Sen on several fronts: It helps build up its military against the backdrop of lingering intraregional threats, as illustrated with border skirmishes with Thailand; it strengthens regime legitimacy as, unlike Western countries, Hun Sen can count on Beijing’s support irrespective of the degree of authoritarianism that takes place in Cambodia; and it creates leverage to attract other Cambodian partners who fear growing Chinese inroads, including Vietnam and Japan.
The focus on an overt military base presence, which would be a more extreme manifestation of Chinese presence in Cambodia, also obscures potentially less extreme and more likely manifestations that are already playing out now and could play out in the future as well. For instance, it is certainly possible that the both China and Cambodia continue to publicly deny speculation about a military base of any kind but that privately, the port, along with other potential locations in the country, develops into an effective dual-use civilian-military facility. Though the chief focus would be on commercial activities and there would be rhetorical affirmations about its openness to other interested actors as well, Beijing and Phnom Penh could also work out privileged Chinese access in terms of defense personnel, ship visits, and even facilities to assist with capacity-building, training, and education programs at these locations.
Of course, as before, where Cambodia has refused or slow walked certain Chinese requests on the security side, this will be a negotiated process involving both countries, and the concerns of other outside actors, including Cambodia’s close partners, will be a variable in that calculus irrespective of the rhetoric coming out of Phnom Penh. The port project in question will be just one aspect of this broader discussion – China and Cambodia have also been discussing other locations for facilities beyond bases, and Phnom Penh has also been announcing new brigades and naval facilities it may set up as well with Chinese assistance. Nonetheless, it is also true that, given the pattern we have seen in recent years, with repeated instances where Cambodia’s deepening dependence on China has manifested in moves that jeopardize Phnom Penh’s own sovereignty and national interests even if it may preserve the longevity of the ruling party, one cannot rule out the possibility of Cambodia acquiescing to Chinese requests that would ordinarily be unimaginable.
These complexities and realities suggest that caution is warranted when evaluating specific binary claims about whether a certain Chinese military facility is either in place or is possible in a strategic location. While these claims are useful in that they focus international attention on Chinese inroads in a certain location, concern about single aspect of Chinese military activity that may be overhyped can also distract from the real issue at stake: Beijing’s real and concerning broader economic and security inroads into foreign countries – at times willingly embraced by regimes and leaders of these countries – that undermine their countries’ sovereignty and national interests and are an affront to rules and norms that typically characterize these interactions. In the case of Cambodia, irrespective of the word games going on about what exactly constitutes a “base” or what is defined as “military use,” China’s military inroads in Cambodia are worthy of international attention and deserve close watching in the years ahead.