Cambodia at the center of a new Cold War
US Vice President Mike Pence is expected to raise an emerging Chinese naval base in Cambodia at regional summits, a revelation that could put Phnom Penh at the heart of rising superpower tensions
Since 2017, China has lobbied Cambodia for a port in Koh Kong on the Gulf of Thailand that could also be used as a naval base, though it remains unclear how far construction has progressed on the deep-water port.
Diplomatic sources have told Asia Times that an emerging Chinese naval base in Cambodia could soon be critically raised by US Vice President Mike Pence, who is currently in Singapore for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit and on next to Papua New Guinea for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.
The US has stiffened its resolve against China’s militarization of the South China Sea, including a call last week for Beijing to remove missiles from features it occupies in the contested maritime area. Some analysts see a potential missile crisis brewing.
A China-controlled naval base in Cambodia would tilt the region’s strategic dynamic by giving Beijing a southerly position it now lacks in any conflict scenario. Depending on Pence’s message, that could pull Cambodia into the South China Sea imbroglio and position the country more directly as a US adversary, analysts say.
It would also potentially put neighboring Thailand on high alert, notably as it takes over Asean’s revolving chairmanship.
China is now Cambodia’s largest provider of loans and aid, and has remained a key ally as the Phnom Penh government faces sanctions and economic retribution from the US and European Union after a recent general election judged to be illegitimate by the international community.
The site of the alleged naval base is thought to be within a monumental 45,000 hectare concession in Cambodia’s southwestern Koh Kong province, near the Thai border opening onto the Gulf of Thailand.
In 2008, China’s Tianjin Union Development Group (UDG) was granted a 99-year lease on the site that encompasses almost 20% of Cambodia’s entire coastline. The US$3.8 billion development is ostensibly a tourism development known as the Dara Sakor Beachside Resort.
But, according to a recent report on the project, its master plan intends to build “a nearly complete economy, with medical treatment centers, condominiums, resorts and hotels, manufacturing facilities, a deep-water port, and an international airport.”
Analysts say that the Koh Kong New Port, a planned deep-water port, will be large enough to potentially host Chinese frigates and destroyers, as well as other vessels of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.
“The Chinese see commercial ports as a foot in the door for their navy anyway. Any deep-water commercial port can be used for naval ships, so the dual purpose is always there,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.
The development has been controversial from the outset. The size of the development appears to go against Cambodian law, which limits concessions to 10,000 hectares. It also expands into Botum Sakor National Park, a protected natural area part of which was only handed over by royal decree.
Reports of land confiscation and the eviction of local residents have dogged the project from the beginning.
The firm behind the development, UDG, was originally founded as a wholly-owned Chinese corporation but switched to being a Cambodian enterprise in order to receive the 99-year lease. Afterwards, however, it switched back to complete Chinese ownership.
Zhang Gaoli, a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, Beijing’s elite decision-making body, presided over the investment’s signing process back in 2008.
More recently, Liao Keduo, then political commissar of the PLA’s Tianjin Garrison Command, met with Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh, at which he described the development project as a “flower of friendship nurtured by the two countries of China and Cambodia.”
Analysts say that representatives of the Chinese People’s Consultative Congress, an advisory body, started site-visits and ordering progress reports in 2015, a year before the concession became part of China’s trillion-dollar investment strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The project was then rebranded as the “Cambodia-China Comprehensive Investment and Development Pilot Zone.” It is also alleged that the United Front Work Department, an important agency within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has played a key role in the project’s oversight.
The department is tasked with developing China’s “soft power” in other countries, though some analysts claim it also engages in espionage and propaganda activity abroad.
The Koh Kong development was included in a recent report, Harbored Ambitions, published in April by Devin Thorne and Ben Spevack for the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, or C4ADS, a Washington DC-based nonprofit research group.
“The Pilot Zone’s planned hospitals and recreational areas could theoretically host People’s Liberation Army Navy crews on patrol in the Gulf of Thailand and on the eastern side of the Malacca Strait,” the report stated.
“Its proposed future industrial capacity could also theoretically provide logistical support to Chinese warships in line with strategies proposed by China’s analysts.”
Thorne and Spevack, co-authors of the Harbored Ambitions report, told Asia Times by email “that construction on the deep-water port has allegedly been stalled since at least 2017, if not earlier.”
Recent commercially available satellite imagery from September, they added, doesn’t show any construction progress on the port.
Yet Paul Chambers, a political analyst at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand, says that work on the port, and potentially the naval base, has recently commenced.
“Though China subsidizes Hun Sen’s regime, Hun Sen has allowed China economic, political and military control over Cambodia to such an extent that the country has become a neo-colonial dependency of Beijing,” said Chambers. “The next step is a Chinese naval base in Cambodia as we see today,” he added.
Spokesmen for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) contacted for this article did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
Some analysts speculate that while the Koh Kong development is the most likely site for a speculated Chinese naval base in Cambodia, it’s possible that China might have designs to build it elsewhere along the country’s southern coast.
When Pence meets with Southeast Asian and other regional leaders at the Asean and Apec summits, he is expected to promote stronger American relations with a region that are now strained because of growing Chinese “soft power. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will be in attendance at the Asean meet.
Relations between Cambodia and the US have severely deteriorated in recent years. In 2017, Cambodia cancelled several joint military exercises with US armed forces, while it also expelled staff from the US State Department-funded National Democratic Institute.
Cambodia has instead prioritized military co-operation with China and next year plans to engage in even larger joint-military exercises, the so-called Golden Dragon exercises.
The US government imposed limited sanctions on some Cambodian officials, as well as visa bans and restrictions on aid, ahead of Cambodia’s rigged general election in July.
Legislation currently in the US Senate, if introduced, could ramp up financial sanctions on senior officials within the CPP government, including Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family.
“The construction a naval base in Cambodia and any facility given by the Cambodian government to the Chinese military would be a violation of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and a violation of Cambodia’s Constitution,” said Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s former president, referring to the peace agreements that led to a United Nations peacekeeping mission take over running Cambodia for two years.
“By abandoning Cambodia’s neutrality and being part of a possible threat against neighboring countries, Hun Sen is playing with fire. Hun Sen has not only suppressed democracy in Cambodia; he is also jeopardizing peace in our region,” he added.
Hun Sen’s government has tried to weather Western sanctions, including the European Union’s threat to pull Cambodia from a preferential trade deal. Analysts say that China’s largesse and geopolitical support has somewhat protected the Cambodian political elite from the cost of these sanctions, including the loss of development aid.
China is now by far the largest investor in Cambodia, which has included sizeable donations to Cambodia’s military. Much of the infrastructure development taking place across the country is China-backed, causing some analysts to believe that the ruling CPP is now overly compliant to Beijing’s wishes, including for a potential naval base.
The bilateral relationship has reached a point, “where it is not clear where the red lines are any more,” says Sophal Ear. “How different is it from a rewind to 1863 and Cambodia being a Protectorate of France? What is old is new again.”
At the same time public anger is rising regarding the impact of Chinese investment in several areas of Cambodia, including Sihanoukville, a coastal city next to Koh Kong province.
The governor of Preah Sihanoukville province wrote a letter to the Interior Ministry in January, leaked to the media, to complain about rising crimes perpetrated by Chinese visitors.
“Because [Hun Sen] is losing popular support to a critical point, Hun Sen becomes more and more irresponsible and is prepared to do anything to cling to power, including blindly siding with an aggressive China,” claims Sam Rainsy.
But the possibility that China will open a naval base in Cambodia significantly changes the dynamics. At present, China has just one overseas military base. The People’s Liberation Army Navy last year opened a base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, which it claims was established to engage in peacekeeping missions in Africa.
But there are also claims that Beijing wants Chinese-operated commercial ports in other parts of the world, such as Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and Pakistan’s Gwadar ports, to be able to function as naval outposts as well.
“China seeks to build blue-water navy capabilities to project power farther from its shores for military contingencies overseas and to protect sea lines of communication in strategic waterways, particularly in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean,” says Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a US-based think tank.
“As we’ve seen with the establishment of the first Chinese naval base in Djibouti, Beijing is clearly thinking about this challenge, and thus it wouldn’t be surprising to see other naval bases pop up in the future,” he added.
So far, there is only speculation as to why China would want to develop a naval base in Cambodia.
One possibility, Grossman said, is that it would put pressure on Vietnam’s strategically positioned Cam Ranh Bay naval facility. Vietnam is now the region’s leading opponent of China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, where islands and features are also contested by the Philippines and Malaysia, among others.
US-Vietnam relations are on the upswing, in part because of Hanoi’s opposition to Beijing’s ambitions in nearby waters.
“An operational Chinese base at Koh Kong would force Hanoi to divert some attention to the west. Thus, Koh Kong could certainly complicate Vietnamese planning for a future armed conflict against China in the South China Sea,” Grossman said.
Another possibility is that Beijing wants a naval base so that it can protect Chinese nationals in the event of an emergency, such as having to evacuate its citizens from another country. Defending its citizens overseas has been a common theme in speeches made by China’s Foreign Ministry, analysts note.
There are also claims that a naval base in Cambodia would be instrumental in protecting China’s maritime trade routes. China faces a so-called “Malacca dilemma” in which its shipping routes through the Malacca Straits, between Malaysia and Indonesia, could potentially be choked by the US Navy in a conflict.
Most of China’s exports and imports, including as much as 80% of its fuel imports, pass through the strait and any blockage of trade would strangle its economy. A canal through Thailand’s narrow Isthmus of Kra has been repeatedly raised since the 16th century, but analysts think that BRI investment could make it a reality.
Indeed, China’s ambassador to Thailand raised the prospect of such a canal being funded under the scheme in October, to which Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha ordered a national planning agency to research the project.
A Thai canal would limit China’s reliance on passage through the Malacca Straits and, given that Koh Kong’s coastline sits almost opposite the projected site of the Thai canal, a Chinese military presence in Cambodia would make financial and geopolitical sense.
Analysts say that China can afford to invest in a naval base in Cambodia even if nothing comes of the Thai canal and, ultimately, the base is of little geopolitical importance. The Chinese Embassy in Cambodia did not respond to Asia Times’ questions on the speculated naval base.
Asia Times understands that the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia, Xiong Bo, left the position in mid-October, which hasn’t yet been publicly stated by the embassy. A small ceremony is believed to have been held at the Chinese Embassy to mark his leaving and that he is now the Chinese ambassador to Vietnam.
It is not known yet who will become the next Chinese ambassador to Cambodia.
But if reports of a Chinese operated naval base in Koh Kong turn out to be true, it would put Cambodia firmly in China’s strategic camp at a time US-China tensions are ratcheting in nearby waters.
Some argue that Hun Sen aims to play a larger role in the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of states without geopolitical ties to any one superpower, even as his internationally embattled government increasingly leans towards China for its survival.
But as superpower competition for regional influence reaches a new fever pitch, “perhaps Cambodia will find itself at the center of a new Cold War in Southeast Asia,” says Chambers.