That China is on a spree to exert its influence globally is of no doubt. Its cooperation with countries to have access to naval bases or build ports and infrastructural facilities is viewed with suspicion globally as a possible way to develop military and naval bases in the region.
Chinese ventures in Cambodia have not been spared scrutiny, and its “debt trap diplomacy” has been used in several countries, with Cambodia no exception.
In July 2019, reports surfaced that China and Cambodia had secretly inked a deal to provide access to a Cambodian naval base, the Realm Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. China already has a $3.8billion backed investment plan in Cambodia’s Dara Sakor coastline to develop an international airport, deep sea water port and tourist luxury resort backed by power stations, water treatment plants and medical facilities. There is skepticism these investments are more to do with setting up a military base in the region, especially a naval base. And Cambodia has failed to pay off the Chinese loans, just like many other countries, thereby falling prey to debt-trap diplomacy.
The Chinese venture in Koh Kong province by a private company - the Union Development Group - is also being viewed with suspicion. The deep water port facility could serve Chinese military purposes in Koh Kong by allowing docking of large warships and destroyers, coupled with a runway 3,400 meters long that can accommodate Chinese air force planes, and is larger even than the international airport in Phnom Penh. Although this concern has been brushed aside by Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh, who denied any possibility of Chinese military influence in the province, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Joseph Felter had expressed concerns that China may proceed with a joint base with Cambodia in the province.
The United States fears a naval base in Cambodia enables China to strengthen its strategic foot-hold in the Southeast Asian region, and also provides easier access to the South China Sea (SCS).
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) no doubt will not wish to miss out on the Realm Naval Base that would provide Beijing greater leverage in Southeast Asia and the SCS, and also a further strengthened position in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by projecting its military prowess, securing its sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through which its trade passes.
The US State Department has already issued a statement to Cambodia. “We are concerned that any steps by the Cambodian government to invite a foreign military presence in Cambodia would threaten the coherence and centrality of the ASEAN.” At the moment Realm has one pier built by the United States and is being used by the Cambodian Navy, but now China plans to build two new piers there - one for Chinese use and the other for Cambodia. According to reports, the agreement allows Chinese personnel to enter the Realm with weapons and Chinese passport and Cambodians will need to seek Chinese permission to enter the Chinese section of the Realm.
This concern that China could build a naval base there is no surprise - Beijing opened its base in the African continent in Djibouti in 2017. Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, however, has denied the reports of allowing Chinese armed forces to establish a base in its territory, stating, “This is the worst ever made-up news against Cambodia.”
However, increased Chinese investment over the last decade cannot be overlooked, including the Beijing funded Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone and the Phnom Penh Sihanoukville Expressway, while becoming the leading foreign direct investor in Cambodia. Under the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Initiative, China also pledged to provide $90 million aid to the Cambodian defense In return for this aid, and Beijing could seek to acquire port facilities in Cambodia for setting up its naval base there.
ASEAN is a big economy for China and improving port and hinterland facilities would help with logistics costs and also improve the over-all competitiveness of the region. Cambodian ports suffer from “congestion, inefficiencies and poor productivity.” Hence, Chinese assistance would help them overcome these shortcomings, enabling better and easier transportation of goods and services.
Amid these developments, should China militarize these facilities in Cambodia, it also provides a credible strike capability against Taiwan and Australia. The US forward base in Guam is also within its reach, as are other Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, with whom Beijing has territorial disputes in the SCS.
Debalina Ghoshal is a Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy Asia Pacific, EastWest Institute.