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Foreign Policy

Cambodia: China Smiles, U.S. Frets

Jun 27, 2022
  • Yang Wenjing

    Research Professor, Institute of American Studies, CICIR

The media in the West have once again played up an allegation of China’s “secret pursuit” of a military base in Cambodia. It’s the latest chapter in a litany of political excess that started in 2019. Why is the West, especially the United States, so alert and oversensitive on this issue? What intentions and considerations are behind this? And how might it affect Sino-U.S. relations in the future? 

China is funding the redevelopment of Ream Naval Base in Cambodia, according to an official note. “This is not targeted at any third party, and will be conducive to even closer practical cooperation between the two militaries, better fulfillment of international obligations and the provision of international public goods,” China’s Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian said in early June. He added that the financial aid would deepen the iron-clad friendship between the two countries and help modernize the Cambodian navy.

The West has long suspected that China might be secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its military.

First, the location is perceived as having strategic significance. A Washington Post article pointed out that Ream Naval Base juts into the Gulf of Thailand from southern Cambodia and “could give the Chinese navy expanded access to the hotly contested South China Sea.”

Other sources also mentioned that having a facility capable of hosting large naval vessels on the western side of the South China Sea would support China’s ambition to expand its influence in the region and would strengthen its presence near key Southeast Asian sea lanes.

Second, the Western media tend to exaggerate the implications of this and have concocted a systematic scheme by China to “build a network of military facilities around of the world in support of its aspirations to become a true global power.” According to a Pentagon report, beyond China’s only other foreign military base, in the East African country of Djibouti, Beijing is pursuing military facilities to support “naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection.” The report added that China is also thinking of Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates as potential parts of a global network that could “both interfere with U.S. military operations and support offensive operations against the U.S.”

Third, the whole issue to date has become a weapon in a political war led by the U.S. to smear China’s legitimate actions globally. The West has been gazing for a long time at China’s military development overseas and painting a false picture in which China has a strategic ambition to exert superiority on the world stage. It thinks Beijing “is banking on the region being unwilling or unable to challenge China’s core interests,” and through a combination of coercion, punishment and inducements in the diplomatic, economic and military realms, believes it can get countries to bend to its will.

As a matter of fact, as early as 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had signed a secret agreement to allow its military to use Ream Naval Base. However, both Beijing and Phnom Penh denied the report as “fake news” and “rumors.” At the same time, with the U.S.-Cambodia relationship souring in recent years, the U.S. is especially watchful about Cambodia’s military ties with China. Last year, Cambodia declined a U.S. offer to renovate one of its U.S.-funded facilities on the base, which sparked U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to visit the country to seek clarification. This made the U.S. think that Cambodia might have accepted assistance from China to develop the base.

From China’s perspective, first off, Cambodia is a sovereign country and has every right to determine whether or not a foreign country is allowed to engage in military base construction. The Cambodian embassy in Washington said in a statement that the U.S. wanted to “negatively frame Cambodia’s image” and that Cambodia “firmly adheres” to the nation’s constitution, which does not permit foreign military bases or presence on Cambodian soil. “The renovation of the base serves solely to strengthen Cambodian naval capacities to protect its maritime integrity and combat maritime crimes, including illegal fishing,” it said. China supports this position.

Second, China’s military engagement with any country around the globe is legitimate so long as the parties agree and do not harm the interests of a third party or the international community as a whole.

China has adopted a defensive national policy of peaceful development, resolutely safeguarding its sovereignty, security and development interests, never seeking hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence. It promotes building of a community with a shared future for mankind. Therefore, its efforts are designed to deepen bilateral and multilateral security cooperation and promote coordinated, inclusive and complementary security featuring equality, mutual trust, fairness, justice, joint contributions and shared benefits. These are the lines that China observes when it comes to security cooperation with all other countries. Cambodia is just one example.

Last but not least, the U.S. has long enjoyed supremacy in the world as a predominant power, a norm-setter and the ultimate, though often self-appointed, arbiter. With the rise of China and the relative decline of U.S. power, the latter should learn to share its power with others and listen carefully to what others say and live peacefully with a rising power, which has always taken peaceful development seriously and put it first as a guiding principle.  

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