China’s Cambodian dream, a debt trap and security concerns

By Dr. Takashi HOSODA, Charles University in Prague, Faculty of Social Sciences

It is not new that China has attempted to establish control and authority over global politics and has gone to great lengths to establish and satisfy its hegemonic interests in Southeast Asia. China’s Cambodian dream is a new link in the chain, a process of setting up outposts to control Southeast Asia. China’s upcoming naval base in Cambodia is an example of such outposts.

The key factors behind China’s choice of Cambodia are the political context of good relations with the undemocratic Hun Sen regime in Cambodia, the economic context of being a country where Chinese investments are concentrated and where many businesses/companies Chinese established operations, and the historical background of having unresolved 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 United States has also contributed to the Chinese concentration of its influence. Cambodia-U.S. relations were affected by Cambodia’s unilateral cancellation of the January 2017 “Angkor Sentinel” joint military exercise, followed by the disbanding of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at the end of 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 in Cambodia’s liberation from the Khmer Rouge. Consequently, China sought to build Cambodia’s military might for its “offshore balancing” approach to “proxy warfare” instead of directly deploying or engaging the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or its navy (PLAN) in Cambodia. I imagine this will have the strategic effect for Beijing of preventing Hanoi from concentrating its strategic resources in the South China Sea. Also, in 2022, Cambodia holds the presidency of ASEAN. During its last ASEAN presidency in 2012, Cambodia was called a “China proxy” due to its blatant pro-China stance. It is clear that Beijing wants to divide ASEAN and sabotage its unity.

The establishment of a naval base in Cambodia also poses a great security risk for South Asian countries. As part of the modernization and expansion of the Ream Naval Base, the Royal Cambodian Navy (RCN) will be able to operate vessels carrying anti-ship missiles and air defense such as the Chinese Type 22 missile boats (Houbei class), Type 056 and Type 054A corvettes. frigates, unlike the current capabilities of the RCN which only has the ability to operate patrol boats without anti-ship missiles.

A secret agreement between Cambodia and the PRC probably exists and allows China to use certain facilities for military purposes, there will be frequent parking and stopovers of Chinese navy ships, especially the second navy: guard patrol boats – Chinese Coasts and the Third Navy: Maritime Militia Fishing Vessels. This would add a significant supply base for China, which is keen to prevent foreign economic activity inside the “nine-dash line”, which is conveniently expanded and used by China without any clear specific definition. . In this context, it is possible that Beijing will try to extend the “nine-dash line” as far west as the Gulf of Thailand.

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

I think Vietnam, which is at odds with China over the South China Sea issue, will be most affected by these developments. In response to the reinforcement of the Cambodian navy, it will be essential for the Vietnamese navy to strengthen its forces within the fifth regional command, which has its headquarters on the island of Phu Quoc near Cambodia. It is pointed out that the Vietnamese maritime militia in the region is already reinforced, but if the Cambodian navy is equipped with an operational anti-ship missile capability, it will force the Vietnamese side to expand its naval forces, and it is possible that a regional navy the naval arms race will be triggered.

Among China’s long-term interests is promoting the concept of a “maritime silk road” to secure access to the Gulf of Thailand and project its power to the Indian Ocean across the Isthmus of Kula. This has the geopolitical significance of securing alternative infrastructure in the Strait of Malacca-Singapore for China, which wants to solve the so-called “Malacca dilemma”, given its heavy reliance on crude oil imports (72% in 2021) and the fact that more than 65% of imported crude oil comes from countries in the Middle East and Africa via the Strait of Malacca-Singapore. Even if fossil fuel imports from Russia increase after Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, China will need to continue increasing its crude oil imports from Middle Eastern and African countries to meet to its strong domestic demand. Thus, in the long term, China’s interest in the Gulf of Thailand will increase, and China’s unilateral and assertive actions will increase not only in the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and Natuna Islands, but also in the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand.

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

In addition to security threats, it poses a great economic threat to ASEAN countries. China’s trade and FDI influence will increase decisively among some ASEAN countries and the second “Cambodia”, like China, may become a military power in the future due to their strategic calculation to attract China’s trade, investment and technological support. This, however, would add to the confusion within ASEAN, which even now is unable to come up with a unified policy on the South China Sea issue.

China is Cambodia’s main source of imports, accounting for 31% of total imports in 2020. On the other hand, the United States is Cambodia’s main source of exports, accounting for 25.2% of all exports the same year. Cambodia’s deteriorating relationship with the United States, new economic sanctions and export restrictions imposed by Washington will lead to the collapse of Cambodia’s economy, further tightening Chinese investors’ control over Cambodia’s resources. and under the pretext of further securing Chinese investments. and more bases will be erected in Cambodia to further fuel tensions in the South China Sea and crush the sovereignty of ASEAN countries. It will turn Cambodia into a mercenary of China, a design meticulously carved out for Cambodia by China.

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