Chinese naval facility in Cambodia is a reflection of US diplomatic failings

Photo: David Rush/US Navy

A recent Wall Street Journal report uncovered a secret agreement between China and Cambodia which would see Beijing assume partial control of Ream naval base. The road to this critical juncture is littered with missed diplomatic opportunities.

Editorial

Red and yellow lights throw an eerie glow over the thick air. The source: flickering signage proudly imploring passersby into pawn shops, casinos and hotels. But many of the locals walk on, unaware of their invitations.

This is because the signs are in Chinese, attached to a ballooning number of Chinese-owned businesses dominating the Sihanoukville skyline on Cambodia’s coast. Casinos, hotels and luxury apartments have disfigured the city beyond recognition. As the home to Cambodia’s only deep-water port, the city has been a magnet for Chinese investment in the country. Chinese occupants now make up more than 20% of the city’s population and Chinese arrivals are increasing by around 126% annually.

New visitors are coming

But Sihanoukville may be getting a new kind of uniformed Chinese visitor in the near future. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported the existence of a secret agreement between the Cambodian and Chinese governments that would see Beijing take over control of part of Ream naval base.

The suspected agreement has reignited fresh concerns over Cambodia’s deepening military ties with Beijing. Reports indicate that the agreement would allow Beijing to station People’s Liberation Army (PLA) vessels at the port outside Sihanoukville for the next 30 years.

The Cambodian government has denied the allegations, reminding the international media that the Cambodian constitution prohibits the garrison of foreign military forces within the country’s borders. However, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced just days later that his government would be spending an additional US$40 million on Chinese weapons.

There are also concerns over the construction of Dara Sakor international airport in the rural Koh Kong. China’s Union Development Group is financing the project. It is unclear why such a rural area needs a three-kilometre runway capable of accommodating large commercial planes as well as military aircraft.

An Australian intelligence official said the Dara Sakor runway “seems far longer than needed for any normal commercial purpose or aircraft, and certainly longer than necessary for any tourist development envisioned here.”

Is the report accurate?

The Wall Street Journal piece relied on information gleaned from unnamed US officials that claimed a secret agreement had been signed on a naval staging facility at Ream. There are other indications that suggest there may be some truth in the piece.

Firstly, Hun Sen already depends on China for his government’s survival. Since 1993 when Hun Sen rejected the results of a UN-supervised election, his government has relied on Chinese investment. He is now in the position where he would likely be unable to reject Chinese calls for a naval staging facility without risking a significant loss in Chinese funding.

There is also the question of why Cambodia recently turned down a US offer to pay for the repair of a training facility and boat depot at Ream.

A Chinese naval base in the heart of ASEAN would be disastrous for regional stability

The impacts of a PLA navy presence in Cambodia would be far-reaching. In the short-term, should the Chinese vessels support Cambodia’s activities in its territorial dispute with Thailand, it could pave the way for Chinese companies to exploit oil and natural gas resources in the region.

With a base on the Cambodian coast, PLA navy vessels would be able to adopt a stronger profile in the South China Sea dispute. It would provide Beijing with a platform to more aggressively protect its illegal fishing activities in the Natuna Islands, the Spratlys and the Paracel chains.

China’s navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

A naval presence in the region could also be used to coordinate a blockade of Taiwan in the future.

Should the airport at Dara Sakor be developed to accommodate fighter aircraft, its J-10C jets could protect Chinese interests across the region, with an internal fuel tank capable of reaching Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and parts of Indonesia.

The agreement is a glaring failure of US diplomacy in the region

President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” made countering Chinese military expansion in the region a cornerstone of US foreign policy. His cultivation of alliances in the region prompted Beijing to adopt a more assertive stance. The Chinese government intensified military construction efforts in the South China Sea and ploughed investment into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in an attempt to forge closer economic ties with key regional players.  

US Marines assigned to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, and Royal Cambodian Navy sailors load equipment onto an amphibious landing craft during CARAT Cambodia 2016, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Photo: Lowell Whitman/US Navy

President Trump has been less willing to maintain his predecessor’s pivot to Asia. Instead of investing in alliances, Trump has sought out photo opportunities with global autocrats and dictators. With US interest waning, countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and the Philippines further cemented their economic ties with China.

Attempts to engage with Cambodia have been minimal. A string of punitive bills, including the Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act of 2019, entered Congress, designed to bludgeon the Cambodian government into democratic reform under the threat of targeted sanctions.

The US Embassy in Cambodia did not even have an ambassador in residence for several months, caused in part by the US government shutdown which delayed Patrick Murphy’s nomination.

It is in Hun Sen’s interests to cultivate strong ties with both the US and China. An overreliance on one global power causes an erosion of sovereignty. Cambodia has seen a marked decline in its sovereignty since embracing Beijing. But while the US threatens the government with trade reprisals and demands and makes democratic progress a precondition to military cooperation, China will represent a more attractive ally.

Bringing Hun Sen in from the cold will produce better results

Hun Sen has been a prominent figure in Cambodian politics for more than four decades. Rather than using economic threats to bludgeon him into opening up the democratic space, the US could do far more for the Cambodian people and stability in the ASEAN region by offering incentives in exchange for short-term concessions.

Cambodia will relish the opportunity to offset Chinese influence. The US can curb Chinese military expansion in the region, and other ASEAN nations can rest easier, secure in the knowledge that the Chinese military is not moving in next door.