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  • Scott Wingo

Cambodia, China, and the PLAN's Overseas Intentions

In this two-part series, I examine the story behind China’s potential future military basing in Cambodia. Part I focused on how China used economic tools to win over the Cambodian leadership and drew conclusions about the intersection of China’s economic diplomacy and overseas military expansion. Part II turns to what the installation would likely mean for regional security.

The Chinese military facility in Djibouti is the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) only existing overseas base, but there may be a second in Cambodia in the foreseeable future. The first signs of this development were reported in July of this year by the Wall Street Journal, which revealed that Cambodia and China have reached an agreement under which the PLA Navy (PLAN) will be granted a portion of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. Second, and less conclusively, a developing resort complex at nearby Dara Sakor includes some infrastructure with clear potential for military use.

In this article, I first outline what we know so far about China’s plans for Ream and Dara Sakor and then discuss what these plans mean for regional security. The Chinese footprint at both sites is relatively small and located far from contingencies in Taiwan and the East China Sea, meaning neither installation would be of much use against the bulk of American and Japanese forces to the east. They could, however, support local contingencies around the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca and protect nearby planned infrastructure projects.

I conclude with takeaways for overall Chinese strategy. Namely, China does not have the power projection capabilities to secure larger, American-style bases, but it does have the ability to use smaller facilities to patrol important shipping lanes in scenarios short of all-out war and to secure access to the maritime termini of overland trade routes such as the planned railroad connecting the Gulf of Thailand to China’s inland Yunnan Province. So China can be expected to focus on smaller, regionally oriented facilities. What’s more, China will be forced to pursue an increasing number of these small bases and transportation corridors in the knowledge that many planned projects will fall through and that those which have been successfully completed will remain vulnerable in a conflict.

What China’s Military Presence Might Look Like

A Chinese military facility in Cambodia as described by initial reports would be better for certain purposes than others. It is difficult to read into Chinese intent—the PRC has not acknowledged the existence of the reported plans—but we can still identify what possible uses a base would have. This section describes what China’s Cambodian military presence would look like and what purposes it might serve according to the leaked plans for naval access at Ream as well as more speculative reports regarding potential dual-use infrastructure surrounding a tourism development in nearby Dara Sakor.

An influential report from the National Defense University described China’s likely overseas basing strategy as a series of “dual use logistics facilities,” or small refueling and resupply hubs attached to larger commercial facilities. These would not necessarily be able to survive a major conflict but would suffice for more routine peacetime deployments and evacuation missions. China’s sole existing base, in Djibouti, is only ninety acres in size, includes a single runway, and has access to one of six berths at a neighboring Chinese-built commercial port. As military analyst Phillip C. Saunders put it, “A port like this isn’t very defensible against attack. […] It wouldn’t last very long in a war.” A report commissioned by the U.S. Navy came to a similar conclusion, stating that the Djibouti base has five likely functions: 1) counterpiracy; 2) intelligence gathering; 3) evacuation missions; 4) support for peacekeeping missions, and 5) counter-terrorism.

Leaked plans for Cambodian access at Ream also indicate a small facility better suited to limited contingencies than outright great power conflict. The base would sit on a 62-acre concession—smaller than Djibouti’s 90 acres—inside Cambodia’s 190-acre Ream Naval Base. The fact that it is on a Cambodian base is relevant. In response to questions from reporters, the Cambodian government has denied any plans for a base and pointed out that Cambodia’s constitution bars foreign military bases. The constitutional provision against foreign bases is very real, but an easy workaround exists: labeling any Chinese forces as “visitors” to the Cambodian facility. Given the nature of the Cambodian regime, legal guarantees are not exactly foolproof, but in this instance, a revision or total violation of constitutional law may not be necessary as long as the facility stays small. China has promised to build two new piers at the base, one for Cambodian use and the other for the PLAN. The base already has one pier, meaning that China would gain a minority concession reminiscent of its arrangement in Djibouti.

A PLAN berth at Ream, however, would differ from the Djibouti base in that it is at a military-only facility and therefore not truly “dual use.” The same could not be said of the mammoth tourism complex under development in nearby Dara Sakor that includes a resort, dock, airport, and a leasehold on 20 percent of Cambodia’s national coastline. Building a new resort hub from scratch is not a crazy idea in and of itself. Thailand’s Phuket and Koh Samui and Cambodia’s own Sihanoukville were all at one point sleepy beach towns with few outside visitors; Sihanoukville (and the Ream Naval Base) sit directly across the Bay of Kompong Som from Dara Sakor. However, the specifics of the investment indicate intentions other than profit. The airport’s 340-meter runway is longer than the runway at the capital of Phnom Penh and even exceeds the 280 meters necessary to land a Boeing 787. It is conspicuously long enough to accommodate any plane in the Chinese military. What’s more, the new airport is slated to have a capacity forty times that of the nearest airport in Sihanoukville, which is already a hub for Chinese tourists. This does not necessarily mean that the facility will be used by the Chinese military, but it means that the option is there if the Cambodian leadership allows it.

What China’s Military Presence Might Do

One or two piers and a runway are a modest installation in the grand scheme of the Indo-Pacific. The PLAN has over 300 ships, almost all of them based in mainland China. The US Navy’s Japanese-headquartered Seventh Fleet has between seventy and eighty ships and 40,000 personnel. What’s more, many American forces in the region are stationed to the east of China, in Japan, Korea, and onward to Guam and Hawaii. Taiwan, the Chinese security establishment’s top priority, lies to the southeast. For scenarios involving Japan, Taiwan, or the United States, a small Cambodian deployment would add little to the much larger number of PLA ships and aircraft based in mainland China. Cambodia also happens to lie behind a wall of PLA-fortified islands, some of them artificially constructed, in the South China Sea:

Figure 1: PLA Power Projection in the South China Sea

[Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Map current as of August 14, 2019.]

The above map illustrates China’s power projection capabilities from installations in the South China Sea, including some currently under construction. The smaller circles represent anti-ship missile range; the larger ones, fighter aircraft range. If the point is to guard China’s South China Sea claims against American forces to the east, then Cambodia is less favorably located than the artificial islands or, more importantly, ships and aircraft based in mainland China.

Thus the purpose of the base would lie in Cambodia’s more immediate neighborhood. The most obvious motivation has to do with deployments in the South China Sea. At the moment, Vietnam is the only one of China’s rival claimants actively enforcing its territorial claims. Brunei and Malaysia were never particularly active about doing so. The badly outgunned Philippine government has backed down from enforcing its claims since June 2019, when an “accidental” collision with a Chinese ship sank a Philippine fishing boat. The pendulum of Philippine politics swings widely, and it is entirely possible that Philippine South China Sea policy reverts to a tougher stance in the future. However, at least for the time being, Vietnam is the last disputant standing. Writing about Ream Naval Base, one analyst has said that “a visiting Chinese naval flotilla could be used to put pressure on Hanoi during times of heightened Sino-Vietnamese tensions.” From a Chinese perspective, Philippine withdrawal presents a window of opportunity to turn up the heat against Vietnam, which might be left encircled by a Cambodian base to the south, artificial islands to the east, and China itself to the north.

One of the reasons that the South China Sea itself is important is its central location to global shipping. Almost all of China’s trade with Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia passes through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca to the south. This includes much of China’s oil and gas supply. The so-called “Malacca dilemma” (马六甲困境)—the fear that the Strait could be blocked by an accident or, worse, the US Navy—is central to Chinese strategy. In a confrontation with China, the United States might also be dependent on passage through Malacca to recommit forces from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific; in this event, it would be in China’s interest to raise the costs of passage through the Strait. This is difficult for China to do at the moment—note that per Figure 4, Malacca is scarcely within current PLA fighter jet range.

Figure 2:

Potential Basing Sites and Infrastructure Projects

[Source: Created by the author using Google Earth. Railway route is

approximated using planned station locations per Thai Ministry of

Transport. Canal location is based on a potential route identified by

A Cambodian base can alleviate the Malacca dilemma in several ways:

First, Cambodia lies between mainland China and Malacca, meaning it could provide the PLA with a refueling and resupply point for both routine patrols in the Strait or emergency deployments. Cambodia is not so strong a vantage point on the Strait as Singapore, where the United States has a resupply agreement and sometimes deploys littoral combat ships, but it is the best option among countries willing to host Chinese forces. It is particularly valuable for Chinese airpower, the effective range of which would be substantively extended southward by a Cambodian runway. The runway at Dara Sakor would even put India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to the northwest of Malacca, within range of Chinese bombers.

Chinese forces at Dara Sakor and/or Ream could also guard overland routes that could lower China’s exposure to risks at sea. A planned high-speed railway would provide overland access from China’s landlocked southwestern province of Yunnan to Thai ports at Bangkok and Map Ta Phut. This route bypasses the disputed waters nearer to Vietnam and the Philippines, if not the actual Strait of Malacca itself. Ream could protect this route as the southern flank of a line of defenses including the artificial islands of the South China Sea and the much more important group of ships and aircraft based in southern China proper.

A larger wild card is the Kra Canal, a proposed waterway linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans across Thailand’s narrowest point. The idea of a trans-Thai canal has circulated since the European colonial era and has never reached fruition due to some combination of sheer cost and the fact that the canal would only shave a few days off shipping time. However, China has expressed interest in backing the canal. The $28 billion projected price tag has led to quite a bit of controversy in Bangkok, but Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has asked the Thai government to look into the possibility of a canal. The project may never be accomplished, but if it is, the Ream Naval Base would not be far from its eastern terminus.

None of these ways around the Malacca dilemma is ironclad. Military power projection in the Malacca area must contend with a variety of rivals. The Thai overland corridor and canal have not yet been built, and a Cambodian base would complicate Sino-Thai relations and potentially jeopardize Thailand's willingness to cooperate with the Chinese on new infrastructure projects. The overland route would only avoid vulnerabilities to navigation north of the Gulf of Thailand; the canal, only to the south. The canal might provide insurance against an accidental disruption to Malacca but would be just as easily blockaded as the Strait. China’s plan appears to be quantity over quality. It makes sense from Beijing’s perspective to pursue a variety of imperfect plans to alleviate the Malacca dilemma in the knowledge that some of them may never actually come to fruition, and that those that do will not be foolproof in the event of a crisis.

Lessons from Cambodia

As it would be only the second country to host a Chinese base, Cambodia provides important information about China’s overall strategy.

First, both the Djibouti and Cambodia bases have involved starting small and focusing on local contingencies. China does not have the power projection capabilities to defend major installations like the American base in Okinawa, and since the primary theater of operations of any great power confrontation would be in China’s own neighborhood, building such large installations would probably be a waste of resources.

Second and relatedly, Beijing is pursuing a strategy of quantity over quality. Not all rumored basing sites will actually materialize. Some will fall through: even within Cambodia, the reported basing agreement would seem to indicate that access to the existing base at Ream is a more solid bet than the more speculative project at Dara Sakor, which has the planned capacity to service warships and planes but which may or may not ever do so. Then, the facilities that are actually built are of questionable survivability in a conflict. The same goes for infrastructure projects—the Sino-Thai high-speed rail and the Kra Canal are of limited strategic value and (especially in the canal’s case) may never happen. Given the difficulties of gaining military access, building alternatives to vulnerable transit routes, and maintaining them in a crisis, Beijing faces incentives to throw as many darts at the board as possible knowing that many will not land. Amid China’s future successes, observers should anticipate more rumors that never materialize and dual-use facilities that never actually turn military.

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