After North Korea and Pakistan, Cambodia — one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Belt and Road Initiative projects — is emerging as China’s closest ally. And the US isn’t too happy. But the Beijing-Phnom Penh relationship comes at a cost for Cambodians.
This week, we learnt that China is trying to build a facility at the Ream Naval Base in the south of Cambodia. The Washington Post has reported the construction of a Chinese naval facility north of Ream Naval Base on the Cambodian coast. According to the report, the alleged facility will be only the second of its kind after Djibouti in East Africa.
Beijing has carefully crafted its support in Phnom Penh by propping up Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and directly helping him sustain power. Many have speculated about Cambodia’s decision to bandwagon with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“Finally, on the decision-making level, the backing of the BRI may stem from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s pragmatic views of how to sustain his rule over the country,” wrote Thearith Leng of the Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies, Asian Vision Institute in Phnom Penh.
The China-Cambodia relationship
On BRI, the bandwagoning can also be explained by the nonexistence of historical tributary relations between Cambodia and China that brought its territory under direct threat from larger states—Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia seems to be seeking a new type of security under Beijing’s ambit that is hard to pass as a relatively weak regional power.
Beijing and Phnom Penh have denied the existence of plans to build a PLA naval base since 2019. But their business ties are now well established.
“The reconstruction of the Yunyang base is aimed at strengthening the Cambodian Navy’s ability to maintain maritime territorial integrity and combat maritime crime. The US turned a deaf ear to Cambodia’s position, made repeated malicious speculations, attacked and smeared, and even threatened and put pressure on Cambodia. This is a typical act of bullying” said deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department Zhao Lijian.
The speculation about a new Chinese military base in Ream Naval base isn’t exactly new. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement allowing PLA to use the naval base.
In 2020, satellite imagery showed the demolition of the US-funded Tactical Headquarters by Cambodia, which followed the demolition of the National Committee for Maritime Security Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) Maintenance Facility and nearby boat ramp.
US officials had begun speculating if the cleared space would be used for a Chinese facility and mark a full swing towards Beijing. Two years later, the American fear has come true.
Sihanoukville—China’s centre of power
Towards the northwest of Ream Naval Base is located a city whose existence is a testimony of ties between Cambodia and China—Sihanoukville. The city, approximately 29.6 km from the naval base, has Cambodia’s only deep-water port and has a large presence of Chinese nationals and businesses.
Between 2013 and 2017, China is said to have invested $5.3 billion in Cambodia. In 2020, Cambodia’s economy stood at $25.81 billion. Around 2017, around 1,20,000 tourists and 78,000 permanent residents from China arrived at Sihanoukville—a province with a total population of 1,50,000. While gambling remains banned for Cambodian locals, it became the centre of attraction for the Chinese who were able to bypass all laws.
The southern coast of Cambodia is home to $4.2 billion worth of power plants and offshore mining companies primary owned and operated by the Chinese.
The enthusiasm among some Chinese nationals for moving to Sihanoukville can be gauged from property sale advertisements posted on the social media platform Weibo.
“Land for sale in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The total area on the property deed is 1,244 square meters. 20 meters wide by 60 meters long. The road is 20 long and wide, and there is a 10-meter-long road next to it. The price is$8/square meter” says one advertisement of many found on Weibo.
It was almost as if the Chinese government had outsourced gambling and drug-infused partying by its citizens to Cambodia. The drug trade through Sihanoukville grew as the new money from China rolled into the Cambodian city’s streets.
“The casinos in Sihanoukville are now worth looking into, as you have currency exchanges in all of them, and there are currency wire services just next to the gambling tables,” said an investigator to the Nikkei Asian Review. They added: “All the punters are Chinese and they gamble with thick stacks of $100 bills”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has estimated that out of the 234 casinos in Southeast Asia, 150 are based in Cambodia. Despite some Chinese residents of Sihanoukville returning home during the pandemic, the drug bust cases haven’t stopped. On 1 June, the Cambodian police arrested four Chinese nationals for drug trafficking.
Although criminal activities aren’t always sponsored by the Chinese government, Cambodia has learned to work with the complexities of its relationship with Beijing. Beijing could very well use the argument of protecting the sizeable presence of its citizens in Cambodia when establishing its presence at the potential naval base.
The US has sought to target Chinese companies involved in alleged “illegal activities” in Cambodia. In September 2020, the US sanctioned China’s Union Development Group Co. Ltd for the construction of Dara Sakor tourism resort inside a national park. At the time, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had suggested a Chinese military base could be built at the Dara Sakor site.
“If so, (this) would go against Cambodia’s constitution and could threaten Indo-Pacific stability, possibly impacting Cambodia’s sovereignty and the security of our allies,” Pompeo said in September 2020.
It is getting very hard to hide the Chinese military base in Cambodia. A Chinese official has confirmed to The Washington Post that “a portion of the base” will be used by the PLA. The Indo-Pacific is now subject to intense geopolitical jockeying and tripwires are on every corner.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)