How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In January 2019, Dan Coats, then the U.S. director of national intelligence, warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that Cambodia’s “slide toward autocracy” could enable China to establish a military presence in the country. Such a move would pose a grave threat to regional stability and to the political independence of many Southeast Asian nations.
An armed Chinese presence on Cambodian soil would violate Cambodia’s constitution, as well as the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements that ended its long civil war. To be sure, Beijing is Cambodia’s largest source of aid, credit, and investment, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s corrupt, authoritarian regime relies heavily on Chinese patronage. But allowing Chinese troops in Cambodia is a political “red line” that Hun Sen cannot risk crossing, at least publicly.
Cambodian defense officials derided the U.S. intelligence chief’s statement as “fake news.” Hun Sen, too, issued vehement denials, repeatedly proclaiming that Cambodia’s constitution forbids foreign bases—as if the very existence of the prohibition made a Chinese troop presence impossible. But recent reports have suggested that the two countries have signed a secret deal giving the Chinese military exclusive access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, and a leaked document details a previously undisclosed visit that a team of Chinese military surveyors made to Cambodia.
The Cambodian and Chinese governments continue to defend China’s vast investment and infrastructure projects in Cambodia as peaceful efforts to boost economic growth, employment, and trade. But a military presence on Cambodia’s coast would significantly expand China’s ability to project power in the region, and there is growing evidence that indicates China is pursuing this strategic goal covertly, through dual-use projects. Indeed, the sheer scale of some of the Chinese construction projects that are now underway in Cambodia—such as the new runway and deep-water port in Koh Kong Province and the new resort on the island of Koh Rong—strongly suggests that they were designed with the needs of China’s military, and not Cambodia’s tourism industry, in mind.
China’s track record gives the world reason for concern about its intentions in Cambodia. When Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, he promoted it as an effort to build soft power internationally by means of major infrastructure projects and loans to developing countries. But Xi has since increased focus on a strategy of military-civil fusion that has systematically erased the division between China’s domestic commercial and defense sectors. In so doing, the policy has also eroded the line between Chinese soft power and hard power overseas.
As a result of laws Xi’s government enacted in 2015 and 2016, Chinese cargo vessels must now be built to military standards, and Chinese civilian companies engaged in international shipping are required to provide supplies to Chinese military vessels when needed. In the disputed waters of the South China Sea, even Chinese fishing boats have been used to enforce China’s territorial claims.
The BRI investments, meanwhile, offer Beijing not only economic partnerships with governments but also a framework for military cooperation. The Center for Advanced Defense Studies found in 2017 that China, by investing in commercial ports in the Asia-Pacific region, routinely makes its national security interests a higher priority than economic development. And as the Brookings Institution noted in September 2019 of China’s BRI investments, “These infrastructure projects are quicker to build, easier to operationalize than proper military bases, considerably less expensive to establish and maintain, and nonetheless effectively Chinese-owned.”
China’s track record gives the world reason for concern about its intentions in Cambodia.
Through the BRI investment projects, particularly in ports and coastal areas, the Chinese government is building a robust infrastructure in strategic foreign locations, even as it plausibly denies that these efforts serve any military purpose. Moreover, because of the investments, China now has far-flung economic interests to protect—and for which it needs and can justify developing nearby defensive capabilities. From there, developing offensive capabilities will require relatively little additional investment. As China expands its presence overseas, these self-reinforcing steps are becoming an established pattern.
In 2013, China began a major dredging and land reclamation project in the Spratly Islands, a disputed chain of tiny atolls and coral reefs in the South China Sea. Beijing initially denied that it intended to militarize the archipelago. By building artificial islands and equipping them with airfields, the Chinese government insisted, it meant to protect fragile reefs and enable prompt assistance to distressed ships. China eventually acknowledged that the islands served a military purpose but maintained that it was a purely defensive one. Beijing stuck to this story even while installing a sizable force of fighter jets and cruise missiles in the Spratlys.
A similar pattern of public denial and obfuscation surrounded Beijng’s first—and to date, only—official overseas military base, built in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. China had invested heavily in Djibouti since 2000, cultivating influence with its government by dangling tempting loans it could never repay. But for years, the Chinese government disavowed any interest in establishing military bases in foreign countries. American officials were reportedly blindsided when Djibouti’s government announced, in 2016, that it had given China a ten-year lease on land for a base. The Chinese base in Djibouti opened, with great fanfare, on August 1, 2017—the 90th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Although China has said that the Djibouti base is merely a logistics facility to support humanitarian and counterpiracy missions, the Pentagon claims that lasers operated from the base have been used to blind U.S. military pilots, and satellite images of recent construction work show that the base is now large enough to accommodate warships and nuclear submarines.
China’s recent history of engagement with Phnom Penh suggests that Beijing now hopes to use the same militarization template in Cambodia as it has elsewhere. Just as it did in Djibouti, China spent years carefully cultivating Hun Sen’s government. The combination of Chinese investment, loans, and political support, uncomplicated by any regard for human rights violations or cronyism, proved potent, and Hun Sen’s authoritarianism increased in step with his dependence on China.
Today, Hun Sen often behaves more like an obedient Chinese regional governor than a prime minister. Isolated on the world stage and increasingly unpopular with Cambodia’s youthful population, he has little choice. Hun Sen’s displays of fealty to China during the novel coronavirus pandemic—he was the first foreign leader to visit China after its lockdown ended and pointedly declined to cancel flights between the two countries during the worst of the crisis—proved to Cambodians that he values Chinese money over his country’s public health. And Hun Sen’s eagerness to prove his loyalty to Beijing on the global stage, helping China dodge U.S. tariffs, for example, by rerouting exports through Cambodia’s Chinese-owned Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, shows that he values his alliance with China over international norms.
Hun Sen often behaves more like an obedient Chinese regional governor than a prime minister.
China presents its investments in Cambodia as a means of promoting economic growth and employment that will benefit ordinary Cambodians. But the reality on the ground is quite different. The Chinese airport and deep-water port project in the southwestern province of Koh Kong—pitched as an effort to boost Cambodia’s tourism industry but widely believed to be designed to serve China’s armed forces—is a case in point. The giant parcel of land that Hun Sen’s government handed over to China’s Tianjin Union Development Group for the project is more than three times the legal limit under Cambodian land law and constitutes 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline. The terms of the agreement—a paltry $30 per hectare on a 99-year lease—dramatically favor China and prevent Cambodia’s private sector from developing coastal industries. Many of the more than 1,000 families that were evicted to make way for the Chinese project in Koh Kong were never compensated; when some traveled to Phnom Penh to submit a petition to the Chinese embassy, they were detained by police.
A profusion of Chinese infrastructure investment projects like these, which serve China’s interests and benefit few in Cambodia beyond Hun Sen and his circle, have alienated ordinary Cambodians and become the focus of popular anger. With Chinese support, Hun Sen’s regime has systematically undermined Cambodia’s democratic opposition and eviscerated its free press—but the fact that the prime minister remains sensitive to questions about Cambodia’s sovereignty, as evidenced by his repeated reference to the constitutional prohibition on foreign military bases, is telling.
Basing armed forces in Cambodia would improve Beijing’s access to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, better enabling China to harass U.S. vessels and threaten their access to U.S. allies in the region. Between its military presence in the Paracel and Spratly Islands and a base in Cambodia, China would effectively draw a triangular perimeter around mainland Southeast Asia. Cambodia’s neighbors in Southeast Asia have thus far largely remained outside the direct sphere of Chinese influence. But if the international community does not act now to halt China’s development of dual-use infrastructure that will soon allow Chinese armed forces to operate from Cambodia, the political independence of these nations will be in jeopardy.
China’s dangerous military expansion in Southeast Asia is not yet inevitable. But as Cambodia comes into sharper focus as a front in the intensifying great-power rivalry between the United States and China, a coherent U.S. strategy to stop the stealthy advance of Chinese military power in Cambodia is urgently required.
The United States has already helped Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam acquire technology to detect maritime security threats, including covert Chinese military activity, and share the information with Washington. Such initiatives must now be expanded in the recognition that Cambodia could easily become the Achilles’ heel of the U.S. containment strategy in the region. The United States and its allies must also act now in support of the Cambodian people—to protect their land rights, demand a new general election, and restore Cambodia’s independence and neutrality.