It has long been rumored that the government of Cambodia would offer China a military outpost, most likely a port facility, in its territory. The speculation took concrete form this week following a Wall Street Journal report that the two governments had concluded a secret agreement that would give Beijing access to a navy base in the south of Cambodia. Despite heated denials from Phnom Penh, there are good reasons to believe the reports are accurate. Such an agreement would mark a critical moment in Southeast Asian security and potentially transform the regional security outlook.
China has long sought access to port facilities in South and Southeast Asia. Strategists have referred to a “string of pearls,” a network of ports and logistics facilities that would allow China to project power throughout those regions — ostensibly to protect Chinese interests, in particular trade that transits those areas, but also to threaten those of potential adversaries. One study identified 42 ports in 34 countries where Chinese firms have been involved in construction and which could serve China’s strategic interests. Key nodes include the ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Sihanoukville in Cambodia.
Cambodia is an especially valuable target since it is centrally located in Southeast Asia and the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has cultivated close ties with Beijing. China has become Cambodia’s biggest investor and source of aid. In 2017, it invested nearly $1.5 billion in Cambodia, about 70 percent of total foreign direct investment, and fuel for the country’s 7 percent economic growth. In addition to jobs, funds grease the pockets of Cambodian decision-makers and facilitate patronage and corruption. China has also provided diplomatic cover for the authoritarianism and human rights abuses of the Hun Sen government.
In exchange, China gets access and deference. Cambodia is the most stalwart of China’s defenders among Southeast Asian nations. In 2012, when Cambodia was chair of ASEAN, it blocked mention of South China Sea territorial disputes in any statement by the organization. Reportedly, Phnom Penh also sought removal of the word “maritime” from areas of cooperation considered under the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific concept” (a fight it ultimately lost).
While military cooperation between China and Cambodia has intensified — China provided $100 million in military assistance and the two countries have held joint exercises — a physical presence has not materialized. Rumors abounded, however. Last year, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sent Hun Sen a letter “raising concerns over the possible presence of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia in the future.” Alarms resumed ringing when Cambodia rejected an offer by the United States to repair the Ream naval base near Sihanoukville. Yet if the U.S. is not welcome, China is. More than 100 Chinese firms are working in the area, with the number of Chinese residents equaling the 100,000 Cambodians that live there.
That frames the Wall Street Journal report — which Western diplomats in the country confirmed — that Cambodia and China concluded a secret agreement earlier this year that will allow China’s navy to use the Ream base for 30 years. Also worrisome are reports of construction of an airstrip in the area that is longer than the runway at the airport in Phnom Penh, implying that it too could have military uses. Hun Sen dismissed the report as “fake news,” adding that “we haven’t had any discussion with Chinese leaders, much less signed any agreement.” A defense ministry spokesman said the report was “made up and baseless.” A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson was more circumspect, noting that “the Cambodian side denied this” but did not add China’s denial, and instead noted that “China and Cambodia are traditionally friendly neighbors.”
China’s presence has prompted a backlash among Cambodians, and Hun Sen, ever the strategist, has been quick to reach out to other partners to provide a counterbalance. Japan is one such partner. Tokyo was reluctant to condemn the Hun Sen government in the run-up to national elections last year in which the ruling party won every seat and instead provided support for the election process. This year, Japan has provided more than $52 million in development assistance to Cambodia and Cambodia’s defense minister wants Tokyo to continue providing training and equipment to the armed forces.
Tokyo’s thinking about Cambodia is framed by Japan’s competition with China, a filter that assumes a sharper focus in the wake of reports of the secret agreement. A Chinese presence in Cambodia in combination with its territorial and military expansion in the South China Sea could transform the regional balance of power. Japan, along with other regional governments, must be alert to and concerned by the prospect of Chinese power projection in Southeast Asia. It is a historical and transformational moment for the region.