Speculation has swirled for more than a year that Beijing plans to militarize a number of Chinese-funded port and airport projects in Cambodia. Last year, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sent a letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen inquiring about Chinese intentions for Ream Naval Base, where U.S. funding had already paid for several facilities. Last month, reports surfaced that Phnom Penh had backtracked on a U.S. offer to refurbish additional buildings at the base. And last week, reports from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times threw fuel on the fire, citing claims from unnamed U.S. and allied sources that Beijing and Phnom Penh had signed a secret agreement giving Chinese warships exclusive access to the base, which is adjacent to the Chinese-operated Port of Sihanoukville. Nearby, another deepwater Chinese port project and a Chinese-funded airport are being carved out of the jungle, ostensibly to serve an empty Chinese-built beach resort and investment zone. (The airport, curiously, features a 3,600-meter runway, far longer than what’s needed for commercial traffic.)
China and Cambodia have denied the reports about the secret pact. Whatever the case, China has ample reason to want the facilities, which would be the Chinese military’s first dedicated overseas bases in Southeast Asia. And for the past several years, it’s been steadily pulling Cambodia ever tighter into its strategic orbit. Its success here illustrates just how potent China’s approach to winning friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific can be – under the right circumstances. But it also underscores a fundamental dilemma that will complicate China’s efforts to expand its military footprint going forward.
China’s Tricky Pursuit of Overseas Bases
For China to secure its vital sea lanes and establish a Chinese-centric order in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to be able to control chokepoints along the first island chain and challenge threats deep into the Indian Ocean basin and the Western Pacific. To do this, China needs long-range naval, air force, and missile power projection capabilities. Just as important, it needs a network of bases to service its warships, launch its warplanes and missiles, store supplies and ammunition, and so forth. However large and sophisticated its navy becomes, it’ll be confined to littoral defense without such a network.
China has struggled to build this the old-fashioned way – by persuading strategically aligned countries that have an interest in giving China the keys to the castle. After all, the United States’ vast network of overseas military bases, foreign bases open to U.S. deployments, and logistics support facilities didn’t start to take shape until the U.S. became a superpower – and, for many countries, their best hope of keeping threats of communism, jihadism and so forth at bay. Its most important bases, in fact, were established in countries it had conquered. China is not the region’s dominant power. It has conquered no adversaries. And a scant few countries in the Indo-Pacific see the U.S. and its allies as threatening enough to throw their lot in with the Chinese.
China has therefore sought to play to its strengths by flooding strategically important countries with aid and investment to cultivate economic and political dependencies, funding the construction of potential “dual use” civil-military infrastructure and then pressuring host governments to accommodate Chinese strategic needs. This is one motivation (among many) behind several Belt and Road Initiative projects. So far, though, successes have been slow coming. Many countries are happy to take China’s money if it’s there for the taking. They may even mute their criticism of China and downplay bilateral disputes to ensure that the Chinese taps remain open. But they can’t ignore the potential political, diplomatic and strategic risks of fully embracing the Chinese military. And the leverage China derives from its “debt-trap diplomacy” isn’t strong enough to overcome these pressures.
China’s best prospects are countries that have a core interest in using China to balance against a more powerful outside foe; an economy in dire need of infrastructure investment and few options for getting it; and a power structure built around opaque patronage networks. Pakistan and North Korea, the closest things China has to staunch allies, fit the bill. So too, apparently, does Cambodia.
Why China Wants Cambodia
Cambodia is often overlooked in the mounting competition for Southeast Asian loyalties. It’s not party to the disputes over the South China Sea, and it wouldn’t be much use to an outside power trying to blockade Chinese maritime trade. It’s unimportant to the BRI transportation projects meant to expand Chinese trade access to the Indian Ocean and ease China’s dependence on the Malacca Strait and other regional chokepoints.
Still, its location does have some strategic value. It would substantially extend the reach of Chinese warplanes, anti-ship missiles, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in Southeast Asia, potentially giving Beijing ample coverage over the critical Strait of Malacca. It could allow Chinese maritime forces – the navy but also paramilitaries like the Chinese Coast Guard and the Maritime Militia – to sustain a much heavier presence around the southern fringes of China’s nine-dash line claims. It would also enable China to increase pressure on Thailand, an increasingly ambivalent U.S. treaty ally, and an increasingly belligerent Vietnam. The oil-rich waters off southeastern Vietnam are among the country’s most lucrative – and where Vietnam has defied Chinese pressure by moving forward with exploration projects with foreign firms. As demonstrated in the past two months’ standoffs around rigs in Vietnamese and Malaysian waters, China often tries to assert control over its territorial claims by harassing commercial operations with non-naval vessels. Whether or not Chinese warships ever call Cambodia home, opening its ports to Chinese paramilitaries and commercial and fishing fleets could prove valuable in this regard.
For Cambodia, a Chinese presence would boost its own maritime security capabilities. It would also perhaps pressure Thailand into negotiations over potentially lucrative joint energy exploration in disputed waters in the Gulf of Thailand – an issue where Bangkok has been content to stall and where Cambodia has no real leverage to force cooperation.
What’s In It For Cambodia
But Phnom Penn’s main interests are political. The 20th century was not kind to Cambodia, to say the least. French colonization was followed by secret mass U.S. bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which laid the groundwork for the reign of terror waged by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and 1980s. The genocide, along with the subsequent Vietnamese invasion and Khmer Rouge insurgency that lasted into the 1990s, wiped out more than 20 percent of the population, destroyed its institutions and civil society, and paralyzed the economy as its neighbors began reaping the benefits of the region’s post-Cold War manufacturing boom.
The creeping authoritarianism of Hun Sen, the world’s longest-serving prime minister, since he consolidated power in a 1997 coup is a manifestation of the traumatized country’s quixotic search for stability. For much of his rule, the Cambodian economy was dependent on Western aid and Western garment markets. This allowed Western pressure to contain his ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s periodic efforts to purge the opposition and form a de facto single-party state. Over the past decade, though, Chinese money and military assistance has poured in. Today, China is Cambodia’s largest source of aid and largest foreign investor, while around half of Cambodia’s foreign debt is owed to China. China has also doled out military aid such as patrol boats. On Monday, Hun Sen announced a new purchase of “tens of thousands of Chinese weapons” worth more than $40 million.
This has undermined Western leverage. During the last election, Hun Sen had no reservations about dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which had been steadily eating into the CPP’s majority in the previous elections. More important, Chinese infrastructure and real estate investment, in particular, have also greased the wheels of an opaque patronage network of the sort that underpins most authoritarian regimes, giving the Hun Sen regime an unprecedented grip on power. Chinese security assistance, meanwhile, has helped keep the Cambodian military and security apparatus on side. Accordingly, in 2017, Phnom Penh scrapped a U.S. military aid program and annual joint exercises, while steadily expanding the scope of drills with China.
Cambodia has an interest in keeping some degree of balance and exploiting Chinese attention to woo investment from China’s rivals. But low-cost manufacturing aside, there’s just not much else firms from the U.S. and its allies are keen to invest in – and not much desire to splash money on the sort of financially unviable but politically important projects that Cambodia is pushing. China is uniquely willing and capable of playing this game. The Communist Party of China’s political fortunes (not to mention the financial fortunes of its power brokers) give it overwhelming incentive to continue to cooperate, strategic balance be damned. Newly passed bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress imposing visa restrictions and asset freezes on Cambodia’s ruling elite will do little to change the country’s tilt toward China.
Still, the fact that Cambodia and China have been scrambling to deny stories about the secret base agreement illustrates the fundamental weakness of the partnership – as well as China’s broader strategy for military expansion. Foreign base agreements are usually politically sensitive in any country, requiring delicate negotiations and a carefully managed public relations strategy. But it’s highly unusual for a country to routinely have to defend its involvement in ostensibly commercial infrastructure projects abroad – and to be wholly incapable of just admitting that it wants what any other rising military power would want. Long after it opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, for example, China continued to insist that it wasn’t a military base.
Cambodia isn’t immune to political backlash, which has repeatedly frustrated Beijing’s goals elsewhere in the region. Ironically, the embattled Cambodian opposition spent much of Hun Sen’s tenure depicting him as a Vietnamese puppet. They’ve wasted little time shifting focus to China, with exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy characterizing the port projects as evidence that Cambodia is becoming a “de facto Chinese colony” and stoking local fears of displacement by a flood of Chinese tourists, immigrants and businesses.
The deeper reality is that China has a reputation problem rooted in strategic and internal political imperatives that make its neighbors deeply uncomfortable. It needs BRI projects for its own economic and political reasons. It also needs to push outward militarily and reshape the regional order to its tastes. BRI projects are therefore fraught with political risk in host countries, forcing Beijing repeatedly into the awkward position of trying to quietly build massive, potentially dual-use projects that can’t be hidden and are unlikely to turn a profit, fueling suspicion about its goals and the coercive tools it’s using to achieve them. Its public denials of military intentions typically just invite more suspicion. There’s not much China can do about this short of abandoning its strategic ambitions, overhauling its internal authoritarian system, waging a decadeslong effort to shed its newfound reputation of political interference and debt-trap diplomacy, and hoping the U.S. bugs out of the region. Its deep pockets may still be enough to win Cambodia. But they won’t be enough to win the Western Pacific.