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China’s Security Presence in the Mekong: A Cambodian Perspective

ISSUE 2020
No 37
Release 14 December 2020
By CHEUNBORAN Chanborey*, PhD

The Mekong region has become a new hotspot in the Asia-Pacific’s fluid security landscape, witnessed by a growing number of subregional cooperation frameworks to accommodate external powers. In addition to the cooperation mechanisms among the lower Mekong countries, including the Ayeyarwady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Cooperation, the Mekong River Commission, and the Greater Mekong Sub-region, the countries have created extensive partnerships with external partners, namely the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation with India, the Mekong-Japan Cooperation, the Mekong-Republic of Korea Cooperation, Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC) with China, and the Mekong-US Partnership (MUP). Noticeably, MUP has recently been elevated from the Lower Mekong Initiative, signalling Washington’s increasing enthusiasm to engage with Mekong countries. Most recently, Canberra has proposed to establish Mekong-Australia Cooperation.

Motives Bringing External Powers to the Mekong

There are at least three main reasons illustrating external powers’ engagements with the Mekong sub-region, contributing to the evolution of the current geopolitical complexity. First, with rapid economic growth over the past two decades, demographic dividend, and the rise of the middle class with millions of new households having significant discretionary purchasing power, the sub-region has become a new growth centre in the Asia-Pacific. Second, the Mekong region is endowed with a vital strategic location as an important gateway to big markets of the ASEAN Community with a combined domestic consumption of 650 million people and a collective GDP of around US$3 trillion, making ASEAN the fifth-largest economy in the world. The region is also the hub of enhanced regional integration and connectivity within ASEAN and between the two Asian giants, China and India, which together accounts for 50 per cent of the world population. Last but not least, Beijing’s rapidly increasing influence in the region through both bilateral ties and the growing MLC has been sidelining other external powers, particularly the US and its allies.

The Mekong has consequently become a new frontier of US-China rivalry. The two great powers’ competition has recently moved into the realm of science – with the U.S. and China each touting different claims about whether China’s 11 dams on the Mekong River are harming the downstream nations. In an op-ed published in the Khmer Times on 17 July 2020, the US Ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy, wrote that China was seeking to “exert greater control over the vital Mekong River”, causing devasting droughts, food insecurity, and ecological degradation. Indeed, these are new talking points that US diplomats are using in various bilateral and multilateral meetings and with their counterparts in ASEAN.

Indeed, the rise of China’s influence and the efforts by rival external powers to contain it have gradually turned the Mekong sub-region into a dangerous geopolitical battleground. To date, some players have attempted to securitise their sub-regional cooperation frameworks for strategic gains without genuine consideration of the real needs for economic development, connectivity and poverty alleviation in the region.

Cambodia’s Receptiveness to China’s Increasing Engagement

A majority of the Cambodian foreign policy community, including policymakers and scholars, welcomes the proliferation of China’s engagement in the Mekong sub-region due to three major reasons. First, they have a slightly different worldview of China’s rise as far as Cambodia’s national interest is concerned. Phnom Penh does not consider Beijing a threat but rather a potential balancing power against foreign political interference and military threats to regional peace and security. This established view is due largely to their shared norms and value in relation to the conduct of international diplomacy based on the five principles of peaceful co-existence, including mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit.

Second, unlike some governments in Southeast Asia, the Cambodian government is convinced that China’s rapid and progressive rise will shape the future of geopolitics and geo-economics of Asia, which will be likely Sino-centric. China will also play a key role in the future regional security and economic order, expanding opportunities for sharing the economic pie with countries in the region. The launching of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, along with the constructive role of MLC, has reinforced this conviction.

Third, from an economic perspective, Cambodian leaders see an important link between China’s rise and opportunities for Cambodia’s economic development. As Cambodia’s largest economic benefactor, China’s economic engagement has helped Cambodia to spur economic growth and address deficits in public infrastructure, such as roads and electricity grid networks. In fact, China and Japan are by far the only partners that have the wherewithal to invest in billion US Dollars’ worth projects. Foreign investors from other countries, including those from South Korea, the EU and the US, are very much private sector driven focusing on commercial interests.

Speculation on China’s Military Bases in Cambodia

China’s growing economic presence in Cambodia has prompted many to subscribe to speculation that Cambodia might host a Chinese military base, a false and groundless allegation which Phnom Penh has repeatedly denied. In fact, this rumour is not new. In 2005, the String of Pearl’s theory was propagated showing Cambodia’s Sihanoukville Port as an important pearl in the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along China’s sea lines of communication, extending from the Chinese mainland all the way to the Horn of Africa.

In early 2016, a concerted effort was made to spread a misleading narrative about China’s secret militarisation work at a commercial port in Sihanoukville. It was perhaps due to the establishment of a Chinese Special Economic Zone and the influx of Chinese investors and tourists in the coastal city. However, that allegation was debunked, thanks to the fact that Phnom Penh offered the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to take a 13.5 per cent equity stake in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville Autonomous Port in June 2017. As a major stakeholder, JICA has played an important role in managing Cambodia’s largest and only deep- sea port, which Japan has helped develop since 1999.

A similar smear campaign has then been shifted from Sihanoukville to other coastal cities of Cambodia. Some foreign policymakers, scholars and media outlets claimed that Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a ‘secret agreement’ allowing China to build its military bases in Cambodia, in Koh Kong and at Ream Naval Base. The truth, however, is that Ream Naval Base cannot accommodate large military ships and hence is not a suitable location to be a base for regional military power projection.

The recent demolishment of a US-funded building at the naval base has triggered a new round of allegation that China has moved closer to have its military base at Ream and that this would destabilise regional peace and stability. In response to a former Singaporean diplomat who proposed that Cambodia and Laos be expelled from ASEAN for “being proxies” to China, a group of Cambodian diplomats raised a number of legitimate questions challenging the diplomat: Does Cambodia constitute a proxy while the allegation that it might host a Chinese military base is a false rumour? If the rumour was true, are some regional countries that are widely known to have provided military basing or leasing rights to external powers also proxies? And between the false allegation of a Chinese military base in Cambodia and the fact that some countries have provided basing rights to external powers, which one is actually a real threat to peace, security and strategic trust in the region?

In fact, journalists and military attachés at foreign diplomatic missions in Phnom Penh have been invited to visit Ream Naval Base. Cambodian top leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and Defence Minister Tea Banh, have reiterated that neutrality and non-alignment have been and will remain the fundamental principles of the country’s foreign policy as enshrined in the Constitution. However, the Constitution does not prohibit Cambodia from receiving military assistance in order to enhance its defence capability. On the one hand, some external powers have been urging Cambodia to allow them to take part in the development of Ream Naval Base while, on the other hand, they keep demanding that Cambodia must refrain from accepting any Chinese military assistance. Is this not a hypocrisy?

All in all, to safeguard national and regional peace and security and to protect Cambodia from being dragged into great power politics, there is an urgent need to put an end to the harmful speculation and to respect Cambodia’s sovereignty and rights to self-determination as guaranteed in the UN Charter. For Cambodian strategists, their country’s neutrality and non- alignment shall never been taken for granted, simply because the loss of them would be tantamount to giving way to foreign interference and civil unrests. In the same vein, hosting a military base of a foreign power in the Kingdom is a red line that Cambodia must never cross because it is not only against the country’s Constitution but would also alienate other major powers and Cambodia’s neighbours. Cambodia values friendship with all countries.

This article was adapted from the author’s remarks at a roundtable on “Regional Impacts of China’s Security Presence in Mainland Southeast Asia”, which was organised by the Yokosuka Council on Asia- Pacific Studies on 10th December 2020 via a videoconference.