This week brought another update in the ongoing saga of the possible Chinese military presence in southern Cambodia. Building on previously reporting about a possible arrangement granting China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy access to the Ream Naval Base, the Washington Post reported on Monday that China is “secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its military.” Citing unnamed Western officials, the report claimed that both countries were “taking extraordinary measures to conceal the operation.”
Most interestingly, the report also quoted a Chinese official, also anonymous, as saying that “a portion of the base” will be used by “the Chinese military” – the first official confirmation to this effect by a Chinese government source. The official denied it was for “exclusive” use by the military, however, and added that scientists would also use the facility.
Cambodian officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Ream modernization project this morning, presided over by Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh and Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian. Indeed, Cambodian government social media accounts broadcast photos of the two officials enjoying a sultry ocean dip in nearby Sihanoukville, a hub of Chinese investment.
For several years now, U.S. policymakers and think-tankers have been seized with reports about the establishment of a possible Chinese military presence in Cambodia. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that China had signed a secret agreement to allow its military to use the base, citing U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter. The Chinese and Cambodian governments denied the report, and other similar subsequent reports, as essentially fake news.
The Cambodian government’s response to this week’s report was much the same, with spokesperson Phay Siphan telling the Associated Press that the expansion of Ream Naval Base was a manifestation of “cooperation between China and Cambodia” but that the country would not host a foreign military power.
At this morning’s groundbreaking, Tea Banh denied the recent reports. “Cambodia’s military capacity building does not intend to pose threats to any countries,” he said, as per the government aligned media outlet Fresh News. “Cambodia just wants to further enhance its self-defense capabilities; protects peace, security and prosperity; counter terrorism and transnational crimes; and perform disaster relief and peacekeeping operations.”
According to Fresh News, China is building two new piers at the base and is carrying out dredging works to deepen the shallow shipping or navigational lanes in order to allow “medium-sized ships to access the base.” It is also providing 36,900 uniforms to the Cambodian navy.
Given the Washington Post’s heavy reliance on anonymous sources, and the Cambodian government’s clear interest in obscuring a possible basing agreement, should one exist, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what is going on at Ream. It is also unclear how much military benefit China would derive from a possible military presence there; the 0.3 square-kilometer facility is not exactly Subic Bay. As John Bradford of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies wrote in February, “these facilities will offer few new operational advantages for the Chinese.”
Whether it is true or not, little of the overheated Western commentary about the possible Chinese military presence in Cambodia recognizes the extent to which this is the logical and direct outgrowth of several decades of misplaced U.S. policy toward the country.
Until the recent uproar that has attended the past few years of Chinese base rumors, Cambodia had generally been ignored in Washington. Since a United Nations peacekeeping mission was dispatched to the country in 1992-93 to manage Cambodia’s transition from one-party communist rule to multiparty democracy, U.S. policymakers have viewed the country as small and strategically marginal.
With no core interests at stake, many saw Cambodia as a country where the U.S. could “afford” to stand on its principles – a goal which appeared all the more urgent given the country’s horrific recent past. As a result, the rhetoric of democracy promotion came to frame U.S. policy toward Cambodia to an extent not seen anywhere else in Southeast Asia, bar perhaps Myanmar. The country came to be treated as a feel-good democracy building project detached from the shifting balance of power in Asia.
As I’ve argued at length previously, built into this strategy was a degree of friction with Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which had reasons to suspect American intentions. Hun Sen likely personally experienced the terror of U.S. carpet bombings on eastern Cambodia during the Vietnam War, as well as the U.S.- and Chinese-led embargo of his government in the 1980s, and was inclined to view U.S. references to democracy and human rights as flags of convenience for more self-interested goals.
The fact that the CPP’s opponents used this democratizing agenda to advance their own agendas, at times calling for forceful outside interventions in Cambodian affairs, naturally made democracy promotion look to Hun Sen an awful lot like a policy of regime change. Adding insult to perceived injury was Washington’s stubborn refusal to waive approximately $500 million in debt contracted by the pro-U.S. government that ruled Cambodia from 1970 to 1975.
It was quite logical and predictable that Hun Sen would respond to these efforts by turning to China, especially as its economy grew and it was better able to substitute for the Western development aid on which his government had previously relied.
To be clear, the establishment of a Chinese military presence in Cambodia would reflect the conscious and self-interested choices on the part of both Beijing and a venal Cambodian elite that has used the power of silver and lead to ensconce itself in power. But it would also signify the bankruptcy of three decades of U.S. policy toward the country. Indeed, it could be viewed as the logical endpoint of the international attempt to remake Cambodia as a democracy in the face of staunch elite opposition, against the backdrop of growing Chinese wealth and power.
Whether policymakers in Washington recognize this reality, and the accumulated legacy of a half-century of U.S. involvement in Cambodia, remains to be seen. But the vociferous U.S. response to the Chinese involvement at Ream is unlikely to deter the chosen path of Hun Sen’s government, which is geared overwhelmingly at shoring up the CPP’s domestic control.
As Blake Herzinger noted in a Twitter thread yesterday, successive U.S. administrations “seem to fail to recognize that public bullying isn’t going to win Cambodia over.” He added, “There’s already one pariah state in the region that we refuse to speak to, why create a second over a facility that won’t have that much impact on U.S. operations?”