Vietnam’s Security Concerns About the Funan Techo Canal Project Are Misplaced

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Vietnam’s Security Concerns About the Funan Techo Canal Project Are Misplaced

There are a number of potential concerns with the Cambodian government’s plans for an inland waterway, but security isn’t one of them.

Vietnam’s Security Concerns About the Funan Techo Canal Project Are Misplaced
Credit: Photo 265160253 © Michel Arnault |

After taking office in August 2023, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet embarked on an ambitious $1.7 billion infrastructure project, known as the Funan Techo Canal. The China-funded project will run for 180 kilometers, connecting Phnom Penh Autonomous Port in the country’s capital to the coastal province of Kep. The canal, which will provide passage for cargo ships weighing up to 3,000 deadweight tonnes, also includes the construction of three water gate systems, 11 bridges, and a 208-kilometre sidewalk. The Cambodian government believes that the project will enhance the country’s economic development facilitating the transportation of manufactured goods between Phnom Penh and the deep seaport in Sihanoukville, reducing the country’s reliance on Vietnam as an outlet for its exports.

For this reason and others, the project has become a subject of concern for Vietnam. In December, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh expressed his concerns regarding the environmental impact of the project to Hun Manet when the latter paid a state visit to Vietnam. While promising to conduct its own assessment of the impact of the Funan Techo Canal, the state-backed Oriental Research Development Institute, published an article saying that the canal was “dual-use,” and could be used for military purposes as well as trade, given its proximity to the Ream Naval Base, which is currently being refurbished with Chinese support. The article wrote that “the locks on the Funan Techo Canal can create the necessary water depths for military vessels to enter from the Gulf of Thailand, or from Ream Naval Base, and travel deep into Cambodia and approach the (Cambodia-Vietnam) border.”

In contrary to this analysis, this article will argue that the Funan Techo Canal does not provide any real military benefit, either to Cambodia or China.

Historically, no canal has been used for military purposes except the Panama and Suez canals, due to their exceptional depth and width. The Panama Canal is 13 meters deep and 150-300 meters wide, while the Suez Canal has a minimum depth of 24 meters and width of 205 meters. The canals also directly connect with the open sea, and offer a considerable short-cut between important expanses of water. For example, the Panama Canal shortens the travel time between the North Atlantic Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean while the Suez Canal reduces the time travel between Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Both are therefore strategically and militarily important. The U.S. has historically relied on these canals for its military movement between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and its military operations in the Middle East.

In comparison, the Funan Techo Canal will be only 100 meters wide and 5.4 meters deep (a navigation depth of 4.7 meters with a safety gap of 0.7 meters), preventing the passage of most of regular sized Chinese vessels. Most of Chinese warship are built with maximum draft of 4.4 meters to 6.6 meters, such as Jiangdao Class corvettes and Type 055 Destroyer. Thus, it requires significant dredging for effective military movement.

In addition, the canal does not directly connect to a strategic location on the open sea. This suggests that the canal will be unlikely to be used for military purposes, and that any attempts to do so would likely not be effective.

In addition to the fact that the canal that does not connect directly to Ream Naval Base, its three water gate systems would likely impede any movement of naval vessels. It would also be hard to do so covertly. The canal will be an artery of socio-economic activities, and it is reported that at least more than 1.6 million people living along the planned canal, making the movement of Chinese navy or coastguard ships hard to conceal. Given the mixed perception of the Chinese in Cambodia, the Chinese military activities on the canal could be politically damaging for the Cambodian government and for Hun Manet, who expects to increase his popularity via the canal. The presence of the Chinese military deep inside Cambodia particularly along the Mekong River would be a major concern to the Cambodian people as much as to Vietnam’s concerns of its own security. And if the Cambodian government has no particular concern about public opinion, moving military assets by train or (Chinese-funded) expressway would be much easier and faster.

If the Funan Techo Canal offers few military advantages, why is Vietnam so worried about its security implications?

To solve this mystery, we first need to understand Vietnam’s perception of Cambodia. Vietnam has long perceived Cambodia, like Laos, as part of its sphere of influence, in which it feels the need to maintain a preeminent position. In its 2019 Defense White Paper, Vietnam warned of “interference” or “division” in its relations with Cambodia and Laos , which since independence, Vietnam has viewed as vital for its national security. However, its influence in Cambodia has decreased dramatically since the end of the Cold War, when Phnom Penh has moved steadily closer to Beijing.

Currently, economics and transport are among the main forms of leverage that Vietnam can use to influence Cambodia. This probably explains why Vietnam is so concerned about the Funan Techo Canal, which would reduce this dependence.

This does not answer the question of why Vietnam’s concerns have been expressed in terms of military threat.

The first thing to note is that this allegation could extend the issue beyond Cambodia-Vietnam relations, to the rivalry between the United States and China. The Vietnamese claim implies that the construction of the canal will also affect the U.S. and its allies in the Southeast Asian region, already worried about the implications of China’s involvement in the expansion of Ream Naval Base. It could thus encourage the U.S. put pressure on Cambodia. While Vietnam understands that its influence on Cambodia is diminishing, the U.S., as the country’s largest export destination, has great influence on Cambodia. U.S. pressure could make it more challenging for Cambodia to pursue the construction of the Funan Techo Canal.

Second, the intended audience of Vietnam’s concern is China, which Vietnam believes to have a higher stake in the project. It is also a warning to China that China’s increasing influence in Cambodia and its involvement in Funan Techo Canal and Ream Naval Base, which Vietnam believes is going to be used by the Chinese military, could be a major factor driving Vietnam to align itself with the U.S. and balance against China.

Currently, there appear to be growing discussions among Vietnamese scholars of Vietnam’s military modernization following the accusation that the canal could be used for military purposes. Vietnam’s security concerns about the canal have probably been taken into consideration by China. This can be seen following the visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Phnom Penh, Hun Sen, currently the President of the Cambodian Peoples Party and the Senate, announced that “I would like to call upon you, Oknha (tycoon) and who have the resources, in case we cannot find the capital from outside, we must unite to build this canal.” This suggest that China might be cooling on the project as Cambodia is threatening to pursue the project at its own disposal even without China’s support.

Overall, Vietnam has its own concerns regarding Funan Techo Canal, even though the project would be of negligible military importance. While the construction of the project will have direct impacts only on Cambodia and Vietnam, Hanoi’s claim that the canal could be used for military purposes is useful way of connecting the project to the broader U.S.-China rivalry, and bringing greater pressure to bear on Cambodia.