ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

China’s Military Ambitions in Southeast Asia: Much Bigger than Cambodian Bases

An excessive focus on rhetorical ‘base wars’ can distract attention from the broader military inroads Beijing is making in the region.

Prashanth Parameswaran
China’s Military Ambitions in Southeast Asia: Much Bigger than Cambodian Bases
Credit: Pixabay

This week, we saw another round of headlines regarding China’s basing plans in Cambodia, with the country’s demolition of U.S.-funded facility at Ream Naval Base exacerbating earlier fears about the country’s possible granting of basing privileges to the Chinese navy. While a focus on this development is important in and of itself given its broader geopolitical implications, it is also critical to ensure that an excessive emphasis on rhetorical “base wars” does not distract attention from the broader military inroads Beijing is already making in the region.

As I have noted before, including in a research report for The Wilson Center, while episodic attention to individual Chinese inroads in defense relationships with Southeast Asian states over the past decade or so – from new China-Philippines coast guard mechanisms to Malaysia’s unprecedented purchase of Chinese naval vessels – is important for its own sake, it can also obscure the bigger picture, wherein Beijing has been systematically building the outlines of a regional security architecture of its own as part of its growing influence in the Indo-Pacific through a series of exercises, dialogues, and facilities. Southeast Asia is the region where this has manifested most clearly.

Keeping the focus on the bigger picture of Beijing’s military inroads in Southeast Asia, rather episodic manifestations of it, is important. It paints a fuller and more accurate portrait of China’s overall ambitions and growing influence in Southeast Asia. It emphasizes that the challenge is less about individual instances of what Beijing is doing or might do, but the issues that arise from its pursuit of wide security alignments and their domestic and regional impacts. Following from this, it makes clear that managing this challenge will require much more from not just Beijing, but also regional states themselves and other major powers such as the United States, in terms of weighing the risks of individual interactions, promoting transparency and addressing legitimate concerns neighboring countries may have.

China’s security advances in Cambodia are a particular case in point. As I have detailed before, the basing issue does deserve significant attention in and of itself: beyond the definitional question of whether what is at play is a full-fledged base, there is a clear track record, including public reporting, of potential Chinese facilities and basing rights in Cambodia, and this alone has significant implications for the balance of power in mainland Southeast Asia and even U.S. military planning in the wider Asia-Pacific. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that China has already made other significant military gains in Cambodia that neither side has denied, including new exercises and sales of military equipment. This has coincided with negative implications for other countries, be it Cambodia’s shifting South China Sea position that has further undermined ASEAN unity or suspension of military ties with Western states that heighten zero-sum thinking on security alignments and raise further suspicions about what Beijing and Phnom Penh have in mind.

Of course, this is not to say that there should not be a focus on individual developments such as China’s pursuit of military facilities in Cambodia – indeed, this emphasis has its own benefits as well, including spotlighting the lack of transparency in some instances, highlighting the trajectory of Sino-Cambodian relations and reinforcing the importance of what Beijing is doing in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific more generally. Rather, as these rounds of headlines continue to surface – with the familiar pattern of quiet developments followed by sometimes strident public denials by Beijing and Phnom Penh – it will be important to focus not just on that single incident, but the full picture of what China is doing in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific, what it means, and what to do about it moving forward.