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Vietnam warily weighs a China base in Cambodia

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Vietnam so far reticent on reports China has a secret naval base deal with Cambodia but privately Hanoi is clearly worried.

US officials seem to revel in debating allegations that a Cambodian naval base currently being refurbished with Chinese assistance could soon become a permanent outstation for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, providing Beijing with a new southern flank in the contested South China Sea. 

But it is not surprising that Vietnam, the nation potentially most imperiled by a Chinese military presence in Cambodia, has been tight-lipped on the widely circulated reports of a secret China-Cambodia base deal. 

Washington has clashed with Phnom Penh over the base issue in recent years, driving bilateral relations to a new nadir. Cambodian officials have been sanctioned, including the head of its navy, Tea Vinh. And US embassy officials have thrown tantrums when denied access to parts of the base. 

Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, recently waded into the debate to say that reports China has a secret 25-year access agreement for the Cambodia base as “concerning.”

But when asked about the Beijing-funded developments at the Ream Naval Base during a press conference on June 9, a Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson was cryptic if not evasive.  

“Vietnam always wishes to maintain and consolidate good cooperative ties with countries around the world,” Le Thi Thu Hang replied, according to local reports. “At the same time, cooperation between countries needs to make positive contributions to peace, security, stability and prosperity in the region and the world.”

Rumors have swirled since 2017 that Cambodia has a secret deal with China, its “ironclad friend”, to allow it to station troops on its territory, which would infringe on Cambodia’s constitution. Phnom Penh has long rejected these allegations, although it hasn’t done much to absolve American paranoia. 

It has rejected American offers to help fund the base’s development, and some of the facilities being torn down to make way for the Beijing-funded installations were built with US support only a few years ago.

Cambodia unilaterally ceased joint-military exercises with the US in 2017. It now drills with China instead.  

On June 8, a groundbreaking ceremony at the Ream Naval Base was presided over by Cambodia’s defense minister, Tea Banh, and  China’s Ambassador to Phnom Penh, Wang Wentian. The base is located in Cambodia’s Preah Sihanouk province, on its southern coast. 

Days earlier, the Washington Post reported that China will have exclusive access to parts of the base, which could allow it to permanently station troops and intelligence equipment there. Phnom Penh denies it will be exclusive to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

A game-changer?

Commentators are predictably divided on the issue. For some, concerns over China having access to the relatively small base in the Gulf of Thailand are overblown. 

The Beijing-funded area of the base under development is about 0.3 square kilometers, reports suggest. It will include a new command center, meeting and dining halls, as well as medical outposts. A drydock, slipway and two new piers are also planned. 

There are reports that dredging will take place, although it remains unclear how deep this will be. New docks in nearby Kampot and Koh Kong provinces will likely be deeper. 

If it is a dual-use facility, rather than an exclusive Chinese military base, and without a fixed or rotational Chinese unit, then Hanoi might have much less to be concerned about, some analysts reckon. 

“If that’s the case, this won’t be a gamechanger and hence we don’t expect Hanoi to overreact, even if it’ll remain watchful and continue to communicate its concerns to remind their Cambodian and Chinese counterparts,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. 

“I tend to believe that Cambodia and China are mindful of Vietnam’s reaction and would, therefore, not seek to provoke Hanoi into adopting more belligerent responses that could potentially undermine their interests,” Koh added. 

Other commentators are more skeptical. “A two-acre camp within a camp is not that small, and will likely have a permanent PLA detachment,” says Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington.

The real concern, he added, is increased Chinese “Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance” capabilities and, in particular, signals intelligence (SIGINT). It will allow China’s military to track “everything in and out” of Phu Quoc, a nearby Vietnamese island that houses the navy and coast guard’s southern fleet, Abuza noted. 

It could also allow the PLA to monitor activity at the Sattahip Naval Base, Thailand’s largest naval base less than 500 kilometers away and where the US makes frequent port calls. 

It could “pose an enormous risk” to the operation of the Vietnamese navy, whose 5th regional command is located just around 30 kilometers away, said Khac Giang Nguyen, an analyst at the Victoria University of Wellington. 

Last year, Vietnam announced the creation of a new armed maritime militia unit in Kien Giang province, which borders Cambodia’s southeastern Kampot province.

Vietnamese military newspaper Quan Doi Nhan Dan reported in June last year that the new unit would “protect sovereignty over seas and islands”, and it is believed to be under the control of Vietnam’s Ninth Military Region. 

Writing this month, the Cambodian analyst Sokvy Rim speculated that the new Vietnamese unit could have been created “with the presumed aim of collecting information regarding the future Chinese military base at Ream.”

More seriously, a Chinese military presence in southern Cambodia could potentially mean “encirclement” for Vietnam, which has been engaged in a heated dispute for decades with Beijing over territory in the South China Sea. 

Vietnam currently faces Chinese troops across its northern border and to the east from China’s proliferating military installations in the South China Sea. Chinese naval vessels stationed at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base would mean Vietnam is now threatened to the south and west. 

Together with the Chinese-controlled islands in the Spratly Islands, “they create a military pincer to squeeze Vietnam,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“A Chinese presence at the Ream naval base is a game-changer for relations between Cambodia and China on one side and Vietnam on the other,” Vuving added. “It marks a point of no return in Cambodia-Vietnam and China-Vietnam relations.”

The two neighbors were the closest of allies after Vietnamese troops helped Cambodian defectors to overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1979. Hanoi was one of the few benefactors of an internationally-isolated Cambodia throughout the 1980s. 

Chinese forces launched a border war on Vietnam during that decade in retaliation for its help in overthrowing the Khmer Rouge, a Beijing ally. 

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since 1979, owed its survival in the early years to Vietnamese patronage, although Cambodia-Vietnam relations have weakened considerably since the early 2010s when Phnom Penh started to pivot to Beijing.  

“Vietnam already lost its status as the most influential partner of Cambodia for a decade,” Giang said. 

Silence from ASEAN

Southeast Asian governments have been quiet on the Ream Naval Base affair, with some sources believing that the likes of Vietnam and other states wary of Chinese power have left it to Washington to take a more confrontational stance on the matter. 

One reason why Vietnam, as well as Thailand, have so far been quiet on the issue is “likely because they see few options to stop it,” says Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

As members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), they are also bound by a strict code of non-interference in one another’s internal affairs. Most regional states are also extremely wary of being seen to take sides in the US-China rivalry.  

“The region has long tolerated US bases and it would be perceived as choosing if they were to openly criticize China or Cambodia,” said Natalie Sambhi, executive director of Verve Research, a think tank focusing on Southeast Asian civil-military relations.

“Publicly, Southeast Asian leaders will continue to affirm that they’ll respect the prerogative of Cambodia to accept Beijing’s presence at Ream. If there’s any change in response, it’ll be slight publicly but loud and clear privately,” she added. 

A Vietnamese ministerial official told Asia Times that while many in Hanoi are naturally “concerned”, the agreed policy is not to overreact and to engage diplomatically with Cambodian counterparts.

They added that Vietnamese officials do talk about the issue with American diplomats, although the source won’t say what has been discussed.

“The default position of Vietnamese officials and academic analysts when China is mentioned is to think the worst,” said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and widely respected Vietnam expert.

“Beyond this knee-jerk reaction, these same officials are more sanguine in private conversation,” he added, noting that they refer to an understanding between Cambodia and Vietnam “of not allowing any forces to use one’s country’s territory to conduct acts against the other’s security and stability.”

Although Vietnam is no longer Cambodia’s main patron, efforts have been made to bolster military cooperation in recent years, including during a visit to Hanoi in October 2019 by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Another joint statement was issued when the Vietnamese president, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, visited Phnom Penh last December.

“The two sides agreed to strengthen cooperation in defense and security based on the principle of not allowing any hostile forces to use their respective territories to harm the other’s security,” it stated rather explicitly.  

This year, Cambodia and Vietnam’s defense ministers — Tea Banh and Phan Van Giang, respectively — held their first border defense friendship exchange in Hanoi. 

Although Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has been tight-lipped about the Ream Naval Base controversy, Cambodian officials have been less averse to criticizing their neighbor. 

In an interview with Voice of America last year, Rear Admiral Mey Dina, chief of staff at the Ream Naval Base, alleged Vietnam was inciting the US to critique Cambodia’s development of the naval base. 

“Politically speaking, both Vietnam and the US are lobbying each other to ensure that Cambodia gets nothing or that we cannot grow our naval forces. With our naval capabilities currently underdeveloped, we feel vulnerable too,” he stated. 

“That’s why [Vietnam] keeps inciting the US to go after us because they know that the US and China are rivals,” he added.

This isn’t a unique opinion. One reason why Washington has been so engaged and outspoken on the base issue is that it is having to ventriloquize for the other Southeast Asian states that are wary of speaking out, some observers believe.  

Options and risks

Whereas Ream’s strategic relevancy is debatable, the symbolic importance of a Chinese military presence in mainland Southeast Asia would be far greater, even if it’s not a permanent deployment.

Symbolically, it would highlight the extent to which Southeast Asia is “at the forefront of US-China competition,” said Andreyka Natalegawa, research associate for the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

If Chinese troops were to be stationed at the base, even if non-permanently, many in Washington reckon this would be the moment the US realizes it has “lost” Cambodia to Beijing. 

“A Chinese military presence in Cambodia is an important move in China’s game of weiqi,” said the analyst Vuving, referring to the popular Chinese board game of encirclement. 

“It further tilts the regional balance of power in favor of China,” he added. “It will make it harder for the United States to deal with China in the region as China has one more deterrent to sway the regional countries and one more tool to compromise US military maneuver in the region.”

Washington’s responses since reports first emerged about possible Chinese military plans in Cambodia in 2017 are frequently the source of commentator’s wrath, with some regarding the US as over-reacting and lecturing.

It has sanctioned several Cambodian officials ostensibly over accusations of corruption and rights abuses, but suspicions are that the Ream affair lingers behind most of Washington’s actions. 

For some pundits, it’s sheer hypocrisy since the US has access to military bases in Thailand and the Philippines, two US treaty allies. 

China only has one formal overseas military base, in the East African country of Djibouti. It has military installations on islands in the South China Sea, however, and recently signed a defense agreement with the Soloman Islands, in the Pacific, which reportedly could include access to a local base.  

Sam Seun, an analyst at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said it is “unjust that the world pays too much attention to Ream Naval Base while Cambodia still lacks a deep-sea port.” 

“Consider Vietnam and Thailand,” he added. “How many seaports or naval bases do they have? Why shouldn’t Cambodia have one?”

Although Vietnam’s possible responses are constrained, it doesn’t lack agency. Diplomatically, it is laboring to improve security ties with Cambodia so as not to lose all leverage.  

“Vietnam has strategic leverage which could have been communicated implicitly or otherwise to their Cambodian and PRC counterparts,” said Koh.  

This could include ramping up its defense and security engagements with friendly powers outside the region, such as the US, Japan and European states. Pundits have suggested Vietnam could join the “Quad”, a security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US.   

Hanoi could also grant foreign powers more access to its military facilities, such as Cam Ranh, a naval base in the south of the country that has welcomed US, British and French naval vessels in recent years.

All this could be achieved without Vietnam having to alter its foreign policy principles of non-alignment and non-alliance, Koh added.

Vietnam has been hesitant about changing the status quo. It has delayed upgrading relations with the US to a “strategic partnership” and in recent years reiterated its “Four No’s” national defense policy.

Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences, recently defined these as “no partaking in military alliances; no siding with one country to act against another; no foreign military bases in the Vietnamese territory or using Vietnam as leverage to counteract other countries; and no using force or threatening to use force in international relations.”

Any major change to Vietnam’s foreign policy, though, would come only after a significant escalation of China’s military threat, said Hai Hong Nguyen, an honorary research fellow at the Center for Policy Futures. 

So far it doesn’t appear that Beijing-funded development of the Ream Naval Base fits into that category. The Vietnamese officials who spoke to Asia Times would not comment on whether the stationing of Chinese troops in Cambodia would be considered such a significant escalation. 

“While there is no trust in China, there are fears of negative impacts on Vietnam’s economy and security as a result of China’s response if Hanoi joins [the] Quad or any other security pact with the US,” Hai Hong added. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner. 

“But if China poses a real threat to Vietnam, getting closer to the US to defend the country would have… a positive impact on the ruling of the Vietnamese Communist Party,” said Hai Hong.  “Any anti-China move would make the VCP more nationalist and get the support of the public if there is a real threat from China,” he added. 

But much hangs on what actually happens not just at Ream but elsewhere in Cambodia. Allegations still circle that the Chinese military could have access to sites in Dara Sakor, a 360 square-kilometer “tourism development” in Koh Kong province being built by the Chinese-owned Union Development Group, which was sanctioned by the US in 2020. 

Satellite images reveal a larger-than-expected runway at the site as well as considerable dredging of a port. Not far from the Ream Naval Base, some analysts reckon the Chinese military could use it for transport. “Dara Sakor is a bigger concern to me,” said Abuza.

According to Ou Virak, president of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank, all of this is “just one more chess move by China within a broader rivalry. This is just the early days.”

He added:  “In time, this might be forgotten in the footnotes as there will certainly be far more developments elsewhere that will be more consequential.” 

By David Hutt – Asia Times – June 30, 2022

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