Controlling Southeast Asia – China’s Cambodian Dream Is Nothing But A Debt Trap & Security Concerns For Asia

It is not news that China has been trying to establish control and authority over global politics. It has gone to lengths to develop and fulfill its hegemonic interests in Southeast Asia.

China’s Cambodian dream is a new link to the chain, a process of setting outposts for controlling Southeast Asia. China’s upcoming naval base in Cambodia is an example of such an outpost.

The key factors behind China’s choice of Cambodia are the political background of good relations with the non-democratic Hun Sen regime in Cambodia, the economic background of being a country where Chinese investment concentrates and many Chinese businesses/companies have established operations, and the historical background of having unsolved land border demarcation issues with Vietnam, which is a Chinese rival in conflict over the South China Sea.

The stagnation of relations between Cambodia and the US has also contributed to Chinese concentration on its influence. Cambodia-US ties were affected by the unilateral cancellation of the “Angkor Sentinel” joint military exercise in January 2017 Cambodia, followed by the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in late 2017. The United States criticized the limitation of democracy, passed the Cambodia Democracy Act, and imposed sanctions on Cambodian officials and businessmen.

Tensions also exist in Cambodia-Vietnam relations over the unfinished demarcation of their land border, ethnic Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia, and social perception of Vietnam’s role during the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge. Therefore, China has been seeking to strengthen Cambodia’s military power for its “offshore balancing” approach to “proxy war” instead of directly deploying or engaging the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or its Navy (PLAN) in Cambodia.

I imagine this will strategically affect Beijing to prevent Hanoi from concentrating its strategic resources in the South China Sea. Also, in 2022, Cambodia will hold the ASEAN chairmanship.

China Cambodia relations
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Cambodia – China’s Proxy

In its last ASEAN chairmanship in 2012, Cambodia was called “China’s proxy” because of its blatant pro-China stance. Beijing wants to divide ASEAN and sabotage its unity.

Establishing a naval base in Cambodia also poses a significant security risk for the countries in south Asia. The modernization and expansion of the Ream Naval Base will allow the Royal Cambodian Navy (RCN) to operate anti-ship and air defense missile-carrying vessels such as Chinese Type 22 (Houbei class) missile boats, Type 056 corvettes, and Type 054A frigates, in contrast of current capabilities of the RCN which has only capable of operating patrol boats without an anti-ship missile.

A secret agreement between Cambodia and PRC likely exists and allows China to use some facilities for military purposes; there will be regular stationing and port calls by Chinese naval vessels, especially the second Navy: the Chinese Coast Guard patrol vessels, and the third Navy: the fishing vessels of the Maritime Militia. This would add a vital supply base for China, which is eager to prevent foreign economic activity within the “nine-dash line,” which is being conveniently expanded and used by China without any clear definition. In this context, there is a possibility that Beijing will attempt to extend the “nine-dash line” as far west as the Gulf of Thailand.

The bigger problem, however, is that many large-scale infrastructure development projects are being undertaken in Cambodia by the Chinese. For example, the Dara Sakor International Airport (3,900-meter runway) project by China’s Union Development Group, and a 15-meter deep-water port is being built in Kampot; the port would allow Chinese aircraft carriers as well as Type 075 amphibious assault ships, Type 072A landing ships, and fleet supply ships to sail in. It could contribute to expanding the scope of Chinese naval activities in the South China Sea and beyond.

China Making Inroads

I believe these developments will most affect Vietnam, which is at odds with China over the South China Sea. In response to the strengthened Cambodian Navy, it will be essential for the Vietnamese Navy to strengthen its forces in the Fifth Regional Command, which has its headquarters in Phu Quoc Island, close to Cambodia.

It is pointed out that the Vietnamese maritime militia in the region is already being strengthened. If the Cambodian Navy is equipped with anti-ship missile operational capability, it requires the Vietnamese side to expand its naval forces. There is a possibility that a regional naval arms race will be triggered.

China’s long-term interest is promoting the “Maritime Silk Road” concept to secure access to the Gulf of Thailand and project its power to the Indian Ocean through the Kula Isthmus.

This has the geopolitical importance of securing alternative infrastructure in the Malacca-Singapore Strait for China, which wants to resolve the so-called “Malacca Dilemma,” given its high dependence on crude oil imports (72% in 2021) and the fact that more than 65% of imported crude oil is imported from the Middle East and African countries through the Malacca-Singapore Strait.

Even if fossil fuel imports from Russia increase after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, China will need to continue to increase crude oil imports from Middle Eastern and African countries to meet its robust domestic demand.

Thus, in the long term, China’s interest in the Gulf of Thailand will increase, and unilateral and assertive actions by China will increase not only in the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Natuna Islands but also in the Gulf of Thailand.

China’s influence over ASEAN will be further strengthened with the “rule of money” and “rule of gun” approach instead of “the rule of law.” Thus, “like-minded” countries will not be able to counter this tsunami-like massive Chinese influence unless they coordinate and collectively manage their available assets, resources, and funds.

In addition to the security threats, it poses a tremendous economic threat for ASEAN countries. China’s trade and FDI influence will decisively increase among some ASEAN countries.

The second “Cambodia” China proxy may emerge as a military power in the future due to its strategic calculation for attracting trade, investment, and technology support from China. This, however, would add to the confusion in ASEAN, which is unable to even come up with a unified policy on the South China Sea issue.

China is Cambodia’s largest source of imports, accounting for 31% of total imports in 2020. On the other hand, the United States is Cambodia’s largest export source, accounting for 25.2% of all exports in the same year.

Cambodia’s deteriorating relations with the US, further economic sanctions, and export restrictions by Washington will cause the Cambodian economy to crumble. In turn, it further strengthens the control of Chinese investing parties over the resources of Cambodia.

Under the pretext of securing the Chinese investment, more and more bases will come up in Cambodia to further fuel the tensions in the south china sea and crush the sovereignty of ASEAN countries. This will turn Cambodia into a mercenary of China, a design meticulously carved out for Cambodia by China.

  • By Dr. Takashi Hosoda, Charles University in Prague, Faculty of Social Science. Hosoda is a Japanese international political scientist and security studies scholar in the Czech Republic. His research focuses on China’s “Multi-domain Military-Civil fusion” warfare, Japan-European Maritime Security/Space Security Cooperation, Security observation of the Indo-Pacific theater, including the East China Sea/South China Sea, as well as possible Taiwan contingency.
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