By Darius Shahtahmasebi
Phnom Penh, January 4 (Russia Today): Washington is getting annoyed by Phnom Penh’s growing ties with China, Cambodia is likely to become the focal point of a major rivalry between China and the United States in the global chess game.
The US has repeatedly accused China of attempting to establish a military presence in a number of countries. These are often unverified allegations, making it difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction.
What we can be certain of, however, is that US president Donald Trump’s ill-advised trade war with China is indicative of an overly hostile anti-China policy. Washington clearly seeks to contain China’s global reach and expanding influence, and in the midst of Beijing’s incremental rise to power it appears the US is concerned China has set its sights on another geostrategic location: Cambodia.
A new runway being constructed in a Cambodian jungle by a Chinese firm has added to Western fears that China could potentially begin housing troops and warplanes in the country. The runway has a tight turning bay, allegedly a construction style typically favored by fighter jet pilots.
Furthermore, citing anonymous sources, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported earlier this year that China had signed an agreement which gave it exclusive rights to part of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every decade after. The agreement allegedly gives China the right to post personnel, weapons and warships there.
Why is the US concerned with China-Cambodia relations?
Cambodia has long been the subject of colonial interference. The Southeast Asian nation came under French protection in 1863, officially becoming a part of French Indochina in 1887. It briefly fell under Japanese occupation during World War II, before becoming fully independent in 1953. Since its independence, the US has played a strong, dark and hidden hand in the country, with little to no media oversight.
The question is: why is the US concerned about a Southeast Asian country barely the size of one American state? Or, more aptly framed, the question becomes: why was it worth the US dropping 2,400 tons of bombs on this defenceless nation in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, killing over 500,000 civilians? What crime had this country committed to irk the anger of the world’s greatest superpower?
According to Stratfor, Cambodia’s geopolitical significance lies in its occupation of a transition zone between the western and eastern portions of mainland Southeast Asia, specifically its central position between Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia has a longstanding territorial dispute with Thailand, briefly resorting to the use of arms in 2011. Bordering the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia’s proximity to the South China Sea further adds to the complexity of the region, given China’s expanding military presence in these waters. Cambodia also has numerous disputes with Vietnam, a country slowly but surely rising to prominence in the region (having previously occupied Cambodia for ten years).
This regional dynamic was aptly described by a former Cambodian minister, who said “Cambodia is a thin piece of ham between two fat pieces of bread.”
The idea that China could become the keeper of such a protectorate certainly was enough to warrant US Vice President Mike Pence writing a letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, raising concerns that China could be building a dual use facility in Cambodia.
Why would China be considering a military outpost in Cambodia?
Cambodia is a crucial ally for China if Beijing is to project its influence in Southeast Asia and beyond, cutting off the US as it goes. Cambodia would essentially provide a stepping stone for China to launch into the rest of the region begin to replicate its naval outpost strategy. Putting aside the US, China’s injection into Cambodia could upset the regional balance of power in the face of a rising Vietnam.
China is also Cambodia’s largest trading partner and source of foreign direct investment, with bilateral trade volume reaching about $7 billion last year. Between 2013 and 2017, China has invested £4.1 billion in Cambodia, an easily greater share of foreign investment into Cambodia than all other nations combined. In 2006, Hun Sen declared China his country’s “most trustworthy friend.” Given Washington’s previously deplorable involvement in Cambodia, it makes sense that Phnom Penh may prefer the company of someone else over the United States.
The recent allegations of a military outpost follow a similar pattern of allegations we have seen almost anywhere China has begun extending its arc of influence. A number of countries that China has poured money into have been accused of potentially offering a major military platform to Beijing for it to be used for military purposes. This list of nations includes Pakistan, Tajikistan, Samoa, Djibouti, Vanuatu, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, to name but a few. So far, though, China has only one overseas military base in Djibouti, whilst the US has its military scattered across the globe.
The allegation is part and parcel of the idea that China is using “debt-trap diplomacy” to rope in other poorer nations under its control. When said nation is unable to pay off its loans, that’s when Beijing moves in and takes something tangible, such as a potentially lucrative and geostrategic naval port. This is despite a report from the Australian-based Lowy Institute that concluded China has not engaged in problematic debt practices in the Pacific (not to mention that China has already forgiven close to $10 billion in debt). Furthermore, you have to bear in mind that even the Nikkei Asian Review, by no means a pro-Chinese outlet, conceded that “…there is no evidence that the port and airstrip might lend themselves to the People’s Liberation Army…”
Whether the recent accusations are true or not, China certainly has been making major military gains in Cambodia, such as in the area of military equipment sales, including jeeps, rocket launchers and helicopters. In 2017, Cambodia suspended an annual military drill with the US, one year after China’s first joint naval drill with Cambodia.
(Darius Shahtahmasebi is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst who focuses on US foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia and Pacific region)