China’s base in Cambodia is a nightmare for the US. Tripwires are everywhere in the Indo-Pacific
AAfter North Korea and Pakistan, Cambodia – one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Belt and Road Initiative projects – is emerging as China’s closest ally. And the US is not too happy. But Beijing-Phnom Penh relations have come at a price for Cambodians.
This week we learned that China is attempting to set up a facility at Ream Naval Base in southern Cambodia. The Washington Post has reported on the construction of a Chinese naval base north of the Ream Naval Base on the Cambodian coast. According to the report, the alleged facility will be only the second of its kind after Djibouti in East Africa.
Beijing has carefully crafted its support in Phnom Penh, backing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and directly helping him stay in power. Many have speculated about Cambodia’s decision to ride with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“Finally, support for the BRI at the decision-making level could stem from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s pragmatic views on how to maintain his rule over the country,” wrote Thearith Leng of the Mekong Center for Strategic Studies, Asian Vision Institute in Phnom Penh .
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Relations between China and Cambodia
In relation to BRI, the follower can also be explained by the non-existence of historical side relationships between Cambodia and China that exposed its territory to direct threats from larger states – Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia appears to be seeking a new kind of security under Beijing’s power, which as a relatively weak regional power is difficult to overtake.
Beijing and Phnom Penh have denied the existence of plans to build a PLA naval base since 2019. But their business relationships are now well established.
“The rebuilding of the Yunyang base aims to strengthen the Cambodian Navy’s ability to maintain maritime territorial integrity and fight maritime crime. The US turned a deaf ear to Cambodia’s position, repeatedly made malicious speculations, attacked and slandered Cambodia, and even threatened and pressured Cambodia. This is a typical act of bullying,” said deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, Zhao Lijian.
The speculation about a new Chinese military base at Ream Naval Base is not exactly new. In 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cambodia and China had signed a secret deal allowing the PLA to use the naval base.
In 2020, satellite imagery showed Cambodia’s demolition of the US-funded tactical headquarters, which followed the demolition of the National Committee for Maritime Security’s Rigid Inflatable Boat (RHIB) maintenance facility and nearby boat ramp.
US officials had begun to speculate whether the cleared space would be used for a Chinese facility and mark a full swing towards Beijing. Two years later, American fears have come true.
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Sihanoukville – China’s center of power
Northwest of Ream Naval Base is a city whose existence is a testament to Cambodia-China relations – Sihanoukville. The city, about 18 miles from the naval base, has Cambodia’s only deep-water port and a large presence of Chinese nationals and companies.
Between 2013 and 2017, China reportedly invested $5.3 billion in Cambodia. In 2020, Cambodia’s economy was worth $25.81 billion. Around 2017, around 1,20,000 tourists and 78,000 permanent residents from China came to Sihanoukville – a province with a total population of 1,50,000. While gambling remains banned for Cambodian locals, it has become a draw for the Chinese, who have been able to circumvent all the laws.
Cambodia’s southern coast is home to $4.2 billion worth of power plants and offshore mining companies, mostly owned and operated by the Chinese.
The enthusiasm of some Chinese people to move to Sihanoukville can be gauged from real estate for sale advertisements posted on the social media platform Weibo.
“Land for sale in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The total area of the title deed is 1,244 square meters. 20 meters wide and 60 meters long. The street is 20 meters long and wide, and next to it there is a 10 meter long street. The price is $8/sqm,” reads one ad among many found on Weibo.
It was almost as if the Chinese government had outsourced its citizens’ gambling and drug-fuelled parties to Cambodia. Drug trafficking through Sihanoukville grew as the new Chinese money rolled onto the streets of the Cambodian city.
“Casinos in Sihanoukville are now worth a look as they all have currency exchange facilities and there are currency transfer services right next to the gaming tables,” an investigator told the Nikkei Asian Review. They added, “All the players are Chinese and they play with thick stacks of $100 bills.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has estimated that of the 234 casinos in Southeast Asia, 150 are based in Cambodia. Although some Chinese residents of Sihanoukville have returned home during the pandemic, drug crime cases have not stopped. On June 1, Cambodian police arrested four Chinese nationals for drug trafficking.
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Although criminal activities are not always encouraged by the Chinese government, Cambodia has learned to manage the complexities of its relationship with Beijing. Beijing could very well argue to protect its citizens’ sizable presence in Cambodia as it builds its presence on the potential naval base.
The US has tried to target Chinese companies involved in alleged “illegal activities” in Cambodia. In September 2020, the US approved China’s Union Development Group Co. Ltd to build the Dara Sakor tourism resort in a national park. At that time, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo proposed building a Chinese military base at the Dara Sakor site.
“If so, (this) would violate Cambodia’s constitution and could endanger the stability of the Indo-Pacific, potentially affecting Cambodia’s sovereignty and the security of our allies,” Pompeo said in September 2020.
It will be very difficult to hide the Chinese military base in Cambodia. A Chinese official has confirmed to the Washington Post that “part of the base” is being used by the PLA. The Indo-Pacific is now the subject of intense geopolitical wrangling and trip wires are around every corner.
The author is a columnist and freelance journalist and is currently completing an MSc in International Politics with a focus on China at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)