By Benjamin Blandin
The agreement reached in 2019 between China and Cambodia on the basis of Ream has recently generated a wave of worrying publications and comments. This agreement provides for the opening of facilities and the parking of Chinese army units on the Cambodian military naval base. For many observers, Beijing thus further strengthens its grip on Southeast Asia, along the now famous “pearl necklace” (an expression designating Chinese points along the main energy supply route from the Middle East).
What explains such renewed interest, almost three years after the first revelations of the Wall Street Journal and the successive publications of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (CSIS-AMTI), even though there has not yet been any materialization (in the military field at least) of the agreement on the ground?
The continuous increase in tensions in the South China Sea, the lack of significant progress on the code of conduct for the South China Sea on which China and other riparian countries have been working for nearly thirty years (see the Manila Declaration of 1992), and Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy in times of Covid have undoubtedly contributed to drawing attention to any new Chinese initiative in the region. What about concretely?
A storm in a glass of water?
The modesty of the facilities at the Ream base, limited to a single dock and a set of logistical and administrative buildings scattered over a perimeter of nearly 77 hectares, could suggest that there may have been a little media excitement after the evocation of a Chinese “secret base” in Cambodia.
This impression is reinforced by the presence of seabed only seven meters deep, which allows the berthing of only ships of modest dimensions (a thousand tons maximum), such as patrol boats. This is of little strategic interest a priori for the Chinese navy, which could not benefit from the facilities as is. And for what use, since it already has formidable naval air bases in the Spratleys and Paracels?
However, several elements raise questions, including the secret nature and the clauses of the agreement, which could reflect Beijing’s influence on the Cambodian security apparatus and the control of Chinese networks on the country’s economy, especially in Phnom Penh and the coast, especially in the Sihanoukville region.
One agreement can hide another
Officially, the agreement aims to modernize the base’s port facilities with the technical and financial support of China, in order to allow the on-site reception of larger ships and to make it easier for the Cambodian navy to conduct its maritime security missions in the Gulf of Thailand.
However, the agreement is not limited to considerations of investment in infrastructure, and it should be remembered that the start of the project was preceded by the destruction and removal of buildings financed by the United States and Vietnam – a precedent that contributed to the straining relations between Phnom Penh and Washington.
Similarly, the clauses of the agreement have never been made public, but it is now known that they include, in addition to a lease on half of the base granted to China for an initial period of thirty years, renewable by tacit agreement, the possibility of building facilities, docking ships and storing weapons and ammunition.
Surprisingly, it has been found that Chinese military personnel circulate armed and dressed in Cambodian or plainclothes uniforms, on the perimeter of the base. Chinese soldiers also have Cambodian passports.
Security links that have become almost exclusive
In addition, it is no secret that extremely strong security ties have united China and Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge period. At the time, China provided the Khmer Rouge regime with massive support to counter Vietnam’s invasion, in the midst of an ideological confrontation between China and the USSR.
Since that period, China has become Cambodia’s leading arms supplier and the pace has only accelerated in recent years, with a mix of donations and sales at cost price, about $240 million over the last ten years. This amount includes logistics vehicles and armored vehicles, artillery, helicopters, anti-aircraft systems, uniforms, small arms and ammunition.
The situation is even more critical concerning the Cambodian Royal Navy, all of whose fifteen patrollers in service were given in 2005 and 2007 by China – a partner from whom Phnom Penh will therefore have to obtain all spare parts, which could seriously call into question Cambodia’s sovereignty.
In the field of officer training, China has strongly contributed to the creation of a military academy whose program was designed by the Chinese Ministry of Defense and where education is delivered to cadets by essentially Chinese staff. The training also includes a mandatory six-month internship in China.
This all-round security support is also accompanied by political support for Prime Minister Hun Sen (in place since 1998), which prompted the latter to systematically support Beijing’s interests, in particular as President of ASEAN, in 2012 and 2022, or by handing over Uighurs to the Beijing authorities.
Ream, future support point of the Chinese strategy in the South China Sea?
The agreement with Cambodia represents China’s second establishment abroad after Djibouti, with the exception of installations in the South China Sea. Once equipped, the Ream base will be able to accommodate ships weighing up to 5,000 tons, mostly corvettes and frigates, and even some Chinese navy destroyers.
For Indonesia, whose Natuna archipelago is located equidistant from Ream and the Chinese facilities of Fiery Cross Reef (Spratley archipelago), it goes without saying that the possibility offered to the Chinese navy to supply on both sides of the archipelago will only lead to increased pressure on its security system and resources. This is all the more true since many clashes have already taken place in its exclusive economic zone, which has pushed Indonesia to strengthen its system in recent years.
The other ASEAN countries bordering the South China Sea (besides Indonesia, this is also the case with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia) are also concerned about Ream’s facilities. Especially Vietnam, a neighboring country of Cambodia, which has already experienced many border conflicts with China, not to mention the regular incidents between Vietnamese fishing vessels and the Chinese coastguard.
Media blow, setback technique to intimidate Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia at the same time, cheap strengthening of its strategic aims, demonstration of force for ASEAN… it must be recognized that for China, the agreement with Cambodia is as much a fait accompli as a master stroke in what is increasingly similar to a game of Weiqi: Beijing shows all-round activism to advance its interests in the region.
Competition, a well-oiled technique in Phnom Penh
We can see it: apparently modest, the agreement between China and Cambodia on the granting of permanent facilities to the Ream base is actually of great importance from the point of view of Chinese strategy in the region.
As for Cambodia, however, too hasty conclusions should not be drawn about the kingdom’s supposed allegiance to China. In his time, King Norodom Sihanouk (on the throne from 1941 to 1955 and then from 1993 to 2004) knew better than anyone else to multiply the reversals of alliances, successively approaching France, the United States, Russia and China. A cunning man, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been exercising the reality of power for 37 years, has himself been able to navigate from one ally to another to stay in power.
If Cambodia’s main trading partners are the European Union and the United States, the first political and security partner is clearly China. However, and perhaps it must be seen as a sign, Hun Sen’s three sons have carried out military studies, not in Beijing but… in the United States (Hun Manet studied at West Point, Hun Manith at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and Hun Many at the National Defense University) – proof that China does not yet control all the levers of power in the country…
This article was originally published in The Conversation on January 4, 2023, and translated from the original French. Benjamin Blandin is a Senior Contributing Researcher at the South China Sea NewsWire.