CAMBODIACHINESE SEPTEMBER 1, 2019
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 29, 2019. Photo: AFP/Madoka Ikegami/Pool
Buying Cambodia: China’s long embrace of a tyrant
Authoritarian PM Hun Sen has reportedly given Beijing the green light for a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand
It is always sound policy for observers of international politics to greet reports from intelligence agencies with a raised eyebrow and caustic smile.
All intelligence agencies have their own agendas, and they are by definition staffed by people inclined towards conspiracy theories and disaster scenarios.
It is only when leaked intelligence material fits into a pattern of proven truths, and when a government allows a named official to publicly support the intelligence allegation that it is worth taking the story half seriously.
For these reasons, the claim that China will build its own military facility at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province on the Gulf of Thailand deserves re-examination.
The story first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on July 21 and was immediately denied with a suspicious amount of bluster by both the Chinese government and Cambodia’s leader of 34 years, Hun Sen.
Hun Sen dismissed the story, saying Cambodia’s constitution forbids the country from hosting foreign military bases. But as he has driven a bulldozer through every major aspect of the Cambodian constitution to keep himself in power for decades, and made the country little more than Beijing’s vassal state, invoking the constitution is not a convincing argument.
For Beijing, acquiring a naval base at the heart of Southeast Asia would be a significant security and force-projection multiplier when coupled with the seven military bases it has built on islands constructed on shoals in the South China Sea. It would also be one more gem in Beijing’s so-called “string of pearls” strategy, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and a full-blown military base in Djibouti.
Washington and other western administrations have been watching with suspicion and concern Beijing’s 20-year charm offensive aimed at Hun Sen. This has led to both the Cambodian economy and Cambodian foreign policy being dominated by Beijing’s interests.