lIn October 2020, satellite photos showed that the Cambodian government had demolished two American-built facilities at the Southeast Asian country’s Ream Naval Base, despite Washington’s offer to renovate them.
According to reports published for the first time in the Washington After† It is a clear sign of Beijing’s increasingly powerful power projection into Asia-Pacific as it tries to counter a US containment policy.
Chinese and Cambodian officials have denied there will be a permanent PLA presence in Ream. But the After says a Beijing official has confirmed that the Chinese military and Chinese scientists will use a “section” of the base.
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The After story chimes with a 2019 report by the Wall Street Journal that said China had signed a 30-year secret deal for its military to use Ream. US diplomatic sources told TIME they believe there will be at least a semi-permanent Chinese military presence.
“Geopolitical competition with the US is increasingly becoming the primary lens through which Chinese leadership looks at foreign policy and international behavior in general,” said Helena Legarda, principal analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
Cambodian naval personnel walk on a jetty at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk Province during a government-organized media tour on July 26, 2019.
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images
A new era of competition between the US and China
China has been building fortresses on rocks and reefs in the disputed South China Sea for years, and in 2017 opened its only official overseas base in Djibouti (where the US, France, Japan and Italy also have bases).
Beijing has also opened a military outpost in Tajikistan, near the border with Afghanistan, and is reportedly building a port facility with possible military use in the United Arab Emirates. In April, a security deal between China and the Solomon Islands was leaked online, then confirmed by Beijing, that would allow China to send armed police and military personnel to the nation in the South Pacific in what some US officials say could be the precursor to a permanent military presence. .
The establishment of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia would boost Beijing’s ambitions to become a true global power with a network of military facilities around the world. That, coupled with the Biden administration’s promise to compete with China, could lead to heightened tensions in the region.
“The big picture is that the region is becoming more militarized,” said Professor Jonathan Sullivan, director of China programs at Nottingham University’s Asia Research Institute. “Not just through the US and China, but with others increasing defense spending in response, increasing the risk given that the two main players are in explicit competition and are actively building alliances and capacity.”
China has long had plans to become the leading strategic power in Asia Pacific but would struggle to challenge US hegemony without overseas bases. According to a 2021 Pentagon report, China is “trying to establish more robust overseas logistics and basic infrastructure… to support the projection of naval, aerospace, ground, cyber and aerospace.” In addition to Cambodia, it has “probably considered a number of countries”, including Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.
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In practical terms, a base in Cambodia will allow China to deploy its warships and coastguard vessels in the region at short notice, rather than sailing them over long distances where their movements can be tracked and countered. In addition, logistics and intelligence oversight would be improved by providing easier access to Southeast Asian sea routes such as the vital Strait of Malacca.
Southeast Asia has fallen back democratically, following military coups in Thailand in 2014 and Myanmar last year, and the astonishing political rehabilitation of the infamous Marcos family in the Philippines. But Cambodia is the ASEAN country seen as closest to Beijing, which has long courted Prime Minister Hun Sen with billions of dollars in shady infrastructure loans and development projects involving close cronies. In 2017, then-US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt said the Cambodian government was “not interested in a positive relationship” with the US.
China’s footprint in Cambodia has only grown ever since. Cambodia has repeatedly been the only ASEAN member to spat joint communiqués about the disputed South China Sea, even sharing drafts of it with Chinese officials, according to some reports.
It remains to be seen how other ASEAN states will react to the news about the Ream Naval Base. A China wary of Vietnam and a new government in the Philippines could react in unpredictable ways. However, Sullivan says, “If the response is weak, it could point to other possibilities for China, which is increasingly motivated to bring about this kind of cooperation.”
Acting Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Papua New Guinea Elias Wohengu (2nd from right) and Chief of Protocol James Noglai receive Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (C) at Port Moresby Jacksons International Airport on 2 June 2022
ANDREW KUTAN/AFP via Getty Images
How the US and allies are pushing back
Canberra plays a key role in Washington’s containment strategy. Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has already called on Beijing to be open about its intentions in Cambodia. “We have been aware of Beijing’s activities in Ream for some time,” Albanian told reporters on Tuesday during a visit to Indonesia. “We encourage Beijing to be transparent about its intentions and ensure that its activities support regional security and stability.”
In late May, Foreign Minister Wang Yi completed a tour of the South Pacific, aiming to conclude a pact on security and development between China and 10 island nations. China’s proposal was shelved at a meeting in Fiji by countries wary of getting caught between Washington and Beijing, but several bilateral agreements were signed. Not to be outdone, Australia sent its own foreign minister, newly appointed Penny Wong, to the South Pacific last week to bolster support in what was traditionally believed to be its sphere of influence. “China has made its intentions clear” [but] so are the intentions of the new Australian government,” Wong said in a statement.
China meanwhile expressed concern at the International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting on Monday on AUKUS’s trilateral security agreement, with the US and UK helping Australia build nuclear submarines.
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But beyond the South Pacific, Southeast Asia is also emerging as a major battleground for influence between China and the US, ASEAN’s second-largest trading partner after China, but still the largest source of foreign direct investment. Last month, Washington hosted a special ASEAN-US summit to promote “peace, security and stability” in the region.
Beijing can be expected to match and even try to surpass Washington’s reach. “The strategic calculation for China in Southeast Asia still emphasizes economic cooperation – the bet is that more countries will see benefits from keeping China on the sidelines,” Sullivan says.
Legarda says China’s courtship of the South, including Southeast Asia, is part of Beijing’s desire to build a coalition of countries to push back against a US-dominated world order. “The more Beijing sees itself surrounded by an emerging coalition of Western powers and their allies and partners in the region, the harder it will push back.”
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