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Cambodia Has Little to Gain From Hosting a Chinese Military Presence

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Cambodia Has Little to Gain From Hosting a Chinese Military Presence

Allowing China exclusive access to the Ream Naval Base, or any other facility, would seem to contradict the broader direction of the country’s foreign policy.

Cambodia Has Little to Gain From Hosting a Chinese Military Presence

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh and Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian (in suit) during the groundbreaking of the Chinese-funded renovation of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on June 8, 2022.

Credit: Facebook/General TEA Banh

On June 6, the Washington Post published a report claiming that part of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base had been reserved for the exclusive use of the Chinese armed forces. The report was based on interviews with Western and Chinese officials whose names and identities remain anonymous. This latest report seems to confirm a 2019 report by The Wall Street Journal that accused Cambodia of signing a secret military agreement with China, granting it access to Ream.

Speculations about a possible Chinese military presence on Cambodian soil have drawn attention and reactions from neighboring countries and other powers. For instance, in June 2021, Vietnam established a militia squadron in Kien Giang province, which borders 200 kilometers of Cambodia’s coastline. The new unit is tasked with patrolling and reconnaissance, with the presumed aim of collecting information regarding the future Chinese military base at Ream. In late 2021, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited several Southeast Asian countries including Cambodia. Her main purpose was to address the rumor that China has been granted exclusive access to the naval base. On June 7, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn had a phone conversation with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in which the Ream military base was a main topic of discussion.

Nevertheless, the Washington Post report provided no clear evidence of Chinese military assets in Cambodia. Indeed, the report seems to contradict Cambodia’s current foreign policy approach. To assess whether Cambodia is gearing up to host foreign military assets and personnel, in violation of its Constitution, we need to examine Cambodia’s current relations with its neighboring countries, particularly Thailand and Vietnam. We also need to take into consideration the approach that Cambodia has taken toward regional and international issues as the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The current Cambodian government has good relations with its neighboring countries, particularly Vietnam and Thailand. Despite Cambodia having border disputes and skirmishes around Preah Vihear Temple with Thailand in 2008-11,  relations have since improved significantly, particularly after the military coup in Thailand in 2014, when Prayut Chan-o-Cha became prime minister. Since then, relations have been marked by cooperation rather than confrontation. In 2018, the Cambodian Minister of Defense Tea Banh had a bilateral meeting with his Thai counterpart Prawit Wongsuwon, which aimed to strengthen cooperation on border demarcation and transborder issues such as drug trafficking and anti-terrorism. In April 2020, Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prayut celebrated 70 years of diplomatic relations, with both parties pledging to focus on the present and future, rather than past conflicts. Thailand is also assisting Cambodia as the ASEAN chair dealing with the Myanmar issue, another sign of the recent significant progress in bilateral relations.

Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam also remain harmonious, despite Cambodia’s recent lean toward China. At the leadership level, senior Cambodian officials, particularly Hun Sen and Tea Banh, have special relations with Vietnamese leaders, and pay frequent visits to Hanoi. Likewise, the Vietnamese leaders also frequently visit Cambodia. In late 2021, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc paid his visit to Cambodia. The Cambodia-Vietnam relations is described by Cambodian parliamentarian Sous Yara  as one of “mutual respect, mutual understanding, mutual trust, and mutual interest.” On military ties, Cambodia has strong military cooperation with Vietnam and various military agreements have been signed between the two countries. In December 2019, Cambodia inked a five-year bilateral military agreement with Vietnam that aimed to strengthen military ties between the two countries from 2020 to 2025. Last December, Vietnam Defense Minister Phan Van Giang paid an official visit to Phnom Penh and met Tea Banh. Both parties agreed to deepen defense cooperation and reached a consensus of “not allowing hostile force to use their respective territories to harm the other’s security.”

Cambodia’s relations with its neighboring countries have been characterized by cooperation and understanding. Against this backdrop, allowing a Chinese military base or presence in Cambodia could lead to a deterioration of its relations with both Thailand, a U.S. ally in Southeast Asia that still relies on U.S. military technology, and Vietnam, which has conflict with China over the South China Sea issue. Chinese military personnel in Cambodia would only mean one thing, which is that Cambodia was aiming directly to confront Vietnam. Is it in the interest of the CPP-led government to antagonize its more powerful neighbors? The answer is no. Interestingly, Vietnam’s Defense White Paper, released in 2019, also “warns of interference in its relations with Cambodia.” This signifies that Vietnam would not tolerate Cambodia hosting a Chinese military base.

More fundamentally, allowing a Chinese military base in Cambodia would jeopardize Cambodia’s recent efforts to woo the United States, to say nothing of its active role as ASEAN chair. Cambodia has demonstrated its neutral position as chair of the bloc when it excluded the Myanmar military junta from high-level ASEAN meetings, following the decision made by the last chair Brunei in 2021, because of its continuing use of  violence against civilians, and when it condemned the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cambodia’s approach to these issues defied the expectation that the country would support dictatorships in other countries and would follow in China’s footsteps in dealing with these issues. (Beijing described the coup in Myanmar as a “cabinet reshuffle” and decided to stay silent on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)

Cambodia as ASEAN chair has tried to promote the bloc’s neutrality by engaging with all superpowers, particularly the U.S. and China. During last month’s U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, Cambodia expressed its support for the elevation of U.S.-ASEAN relations to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership. This action illustrated Cambodia’s position of including all relevant superpowers in ASEAN’s framework of cooperation.

Cambodia’s recent efforts at improving relations with the U.S. would be rendered useless if China established a military presence in Cambodia. During the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, Cambodia issued its latest Defence White Paper, which referred to the upgrading of the Ream Naval Base, stating that “this modernization does not threaten any particular nation in the region, while Cambodia does not permit any foreign military base on its sovereign territory.”

The paper also emphasizes Cambodia’s neutrality and independence. The approach aimed to alleviate Washington’s recent pressure and sanctions against Phnom Penh for its close ties with Beijing. The notion behind Cambodia’s approach toward Washington was its belief that Cambodia cannot rely on China alone. The economic support from the U.S. and Western countries remains significant for Cambodia’s economic development.

Overall, the claim that there are Chinese military assets in Cambodia remains questionable since recent reports provide no concrete evidence other than the anonymous claim from Western and Chinese officials. More importantly, the report seems to contradict Cambodia’s current foreign policy approach. Hosting a Chinese military in Cambodia would not only do more harm than good to Cambodia, it would also cause a domestic backlash that would be unfavorable for the ruling party.