By Kashif Anwar
As the relationship between China and the US has become competitive, in such regards, the development impacting the Indo-Pacific region carries a lot of weight. The discovery of China’s secret naval base/facility north of Ream Naval Base – facing the Gulf of Thailand – in Cambodia recently came into the limelight. Further, its proximity to the Malacca Strait and one of the busiest shipping routes in the world raises security challenges for the Southeast Asian countries and the West. The issue is concerning as it’s an application of China’s 2015 and 2019 Defence White Paper which called for far seas protection to protect China’s overseas interests and subsequently develop itself as a global power.Moreover, such development came at the backdrop of Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar, which China will use to import oil and address its Malacca Dilemma.Such Chinese initiatives in Southeast Asia accompanied Chinese-built ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Its first overseas military base in Djibouti reflects that China intends to protect and secure its overseas economic interest.
China’s Naval Facility and its relationship with Cambodia
The launch of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 strengthened China’s economy further, assisted in PLA modernisation, and utilised the BRI-built port to enhance China’s global power and influence. However, some BRI-built ports are located strategically, raising concerns that such ports could also be used for military purposes. On the other hand, China is also engaged in constructing an overseas military base, and Djibouti is one example. Such development coincides with China’s 2015 Defence White Paper “Chinese Military Strategy” and 2019 Defence White Paper “China’s National Defense in a New Era”, as these white papers pushed China to be a blue-water navy and become a global power. In addition, the recent discovery of the construction of a port or expansion of Ream Naval Base in Cambodia raises many strategic concerns for the Southeast Asian region and the US
China and Cambodia enjoy a friendly relationship encompassing a strong political and military relationship. In 2010, China and Cambodia upgraded their relationship and became a comprehensive strategic partnership. As China sees Cambodia as a strong ally in Southeast Asia, in 2018, they celebrated the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic ties. China further sees their relationship as a continuation of their 700 years of relationship. On the other hand, it impacts the relationship between Cambodia and the US, as the US argues Cambodia is moving closer to China, and as a result, Cambodia could become a proxy of China. In such a situation, being close to China, Cambodia’s relationship with ASEAN has become complicated as it continues to undermine ASEAN unity. For example, as the 2022 ASEAN Summit will be held in Cambodia, China could attempt to undermine the South China Sea Code of Conduct in its favour, with the code in China’s favour. Moreover, Cambodia has previously blocked various ASEAN policy-making using its veto power. Such an act from Cambodia, as a result, impacts ASEAN’s functioning, and subsequently, Cambodia is alienated by some members of the group.
China and Cambodia’s relationship reflects a marriage of convenience; it provides both opportunities and challenges for Cambodia. For example, China has become Cambodia’s last resort to protect its image on the international stage when Cambodia’s relationship with the European Union (EU) has deteriorated – the ‘Everything but Arms’ agreement and EU tariffs on Cambodia. On the other hand, Cambodia has become a leveraging point for China within ASEAN. As a result, it allows China to exert its political and military claims in the Southeast Asian region. In such a situation, recently, it came into the limelight that China is currently building a naval facility north of Ream Naval Base of Cambodia. Once completed, it will become China’s second overseas naval base after Djibouti. Meanwhile,as the Ream Naval Base is strategically located, it will give China’sPeople’s Liberation Army Navy an edge and further undermine the security of the Indo-Pacific region.
Currently, China is working to build a network of military bases worldwide; it reflects China’s ambition to be a global power in the coming years. Once developed, such a naval base will have the capacity to host China’s large naval assets, which will further enhance and strengthen China’s influence in the South China Sea region. China is a major power in the Southeast Asian region and controls the disputed Paracel and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Therefore, the development of a naval base near Ream Naval Base is located west of the South China Sea, which gives Beijing a window of opportunity to influence Southeast Asian countries further.
Implications of Naval facility on the Indo-Pacific Region’s Security
As a result of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its 2015 and 2019 Defence White Paper, China has become aggressive in acquiring oversea bases. Currently, China is working towards having a military presence and base on the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific Ocean region. Such an initiative aligns with China’s intention to acquire a new military base in the UAE, Tanzania, and Cambodia. Seeing the geographic location of these countries and China’s military base in Djibouti once completed, such a military base will allow China to exert its military dominance and project its political system across the world. In such a situation, the development of a naval base north of Ream Naval Base in Cambodia is part of the whole picture of China’s move to expand its global position and power. Such development will undermine the US global dominance; therefore, the QUAD and AUKUS and the US relationship with the ASEAN is being used to address such concerns.
In its 2019 report, Wall Street Journal argues that China had signed a secret agreement with Cambodia that would allow China to use it as a military base; then, such a statement was refuted by China and Cambodia as false and rumour. However, the discovery of construction of such a naval base shows the presence of such a base close to Ream Naval Base, and a Chinese official confirmed a portion of such base could be used for military purposes. On the issue, on the other hand, Cambodia disagrees with such a finding. It argues that current construction near the Ream Naval Base is to strengthen its naval capabilities. Therefore, with the presence of a Chinese naval base near the Ream Naval Base, Cambodia sees such a statement as a baseless accusation to negatively frame Cambodia’s image.
Rise in economic and military power, Chinese leaders see the Indo-Pacific region as a rightful and historic sphere of influence, and thus it’s crucial for its global ambition. As West argues the development of the Chinese base in Cambodia was kept hidden, they argue once it is completed, it will expand China’s influence in the Pacific region. Such development and Djibouti will give China an edge and easy accessibility to navigate its naval vessels away from its coastline to secure its strategic and economic interests. However, such development will only lead to the militarisation of the Indo-Pacific region, undermining peace and stability.
Construction of a Chinese Naval base close to the Ream Naval Base, which is also close to the Malacca Strait, a vital shipping route in the Indo-Pacific region, China could use such a base to choke the route at the time of conflict. Furthermore, with a five-year security agreement between China and Solomon Island, China could use the Island’s geolocation to impact the US and its Pacific allies’ communication lines during the conflict. Further, the Chinese military presence on the Island allows China an effective reinforcement at the time of the invasion of Taiwan. In such regard, China’s control in the Paracel and Spratly Island, the Chinese military base on its East (Solomon Island) and the naval base in the West (Cambodia) will allow China to thwart any attack effectively at the time of conflict.
As China enjoys healthy economic ties with the ASEAN and Pacific Island countries, to name a few, China within the BRI provides financial aid and assistance to build various infrastructure projects, including ports in 130 BRI member countries. Such infrastructure work is being done under the win-win cooperation and to further strengthen the Chinese economy on the other hand. Meanwhile, such projects have allowed China to influence BRI member countries’ policy-making process. It further resulted in the emergence of the Debt Diplomacy, which only gives leverage to China, as we saw in the Hambantota in Sri Lanka.
In such a situation, the secret naval base in Cambodia is one example of China utilising its economic might and influence. However, questions are being raised as China could use BRI port from a military perspective as many such ports possess dual usability (civil and military). Currently, China and Cambodia have rejected the presence of any such base north of Ream Naval Base, and it’s being argued that the ceremony for the Ream Naval Base’s expansion will be held soon. The construction of such a base and rapid development of the aircraft carrier will increase the Chinese military presence in South East Asia, transforming the security dynamics of Southeast Asia and, subsequently, the Indo-Pacific region.
Currently, China sees the Indo-Pacific region as a geographic region that will assist them in achieving its Chinese Dream, transforming itself into a global power and a developed country. China could use Chinese built ports in BRI member countries from a military perspective to achieve such goals. After Djibouti, China plans to have more overseas bases in line with the 2015 and 2019 Defence White Paper, and constructing a Chinese naval base in Cambodia is one example. In such a situation, China uses its economic power and influence and the Belt and Road News Network to address the Chinese threat narrative, ensuring its Chinese Dream and vision to be a global power didn’t get hampered.
(Author is Research Associate, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).