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Chinese expansion thrives where democracy undermined

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Western acknowledgement of the reality of China’s military presence in Cambodia highlights the ease with which such facilities can be established in the absence of strong, democratically accountable institutions.

The agreement to allow the Chinese to build a naval base in Cambodia was reported by The Wall Street Journal back in 2019. This was met by predictable denials by the government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985. 

The Washington Post reported on June 6 this year that Western officials now acknowledge that China is indeed building a naval facility in Cambodia for the exclusive use of its military. The officials told the newspaper that the base, in the northern section of Cambodia’s Ream naval base on the Gulf of Thailand, is part of China’s strategy to build a global network of military facilities.

The warning signals have been clear enough. Bilateral exercises between the Cambodian and US navies took place at Ream between 2010 and 2016. These exercises have been discontinued, and a joint Cambodia-China military exercise took place in 2020. A facility at Ream that was built with US money has been demolished.

The Chinese base breaches both the Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia of 1991 and Cambodia’s own constitution. These both stipulate that Cambodia is to be neutral and independent.

A senior US defense official told Reuters that attempts to cover up the Chinese activity at Ream have bordered on the farcical, with Chinese people at the base disguising themselves when foreign officials have come to visit.

Russia-Ukraine

The pattern of deception is familiar. China denied for years that it was establishing a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, which was opened in 2017. As in Cambodia, the official rationale for the “logistics” base is couched in the language of respect for sovereignty by two highly unequal partners, and the contribution that will be made to regional security.

The bases in Djibouti and Cambodia are part of a wide-ranging strategy to extend China’s sphere of control. A US Defense Department report to Congress in 2021 stated that China’s “Military-Civil Fusion Strategy” seeks to build military requirements into civilian infrastructure and leverage civilian construction for military purposes.

The report says that in addition to Cambodia, China has considered at least 12 countries as possible locations for military bases: Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan. China has probably made overtures as far afield as Namibia in southwest Africa, the report states.

The war between Russia and Ukraine has provided ideal camouflage for the Ream project and probably others to proceed. The world has more pressing concerns, and the Chinese leadership is much less likely than Vladimir Putin to resort to direct military aggression.

Though China deftly avoids endorsing Putin’s invasion, there remains an inescapable identity of interests between the world’s two largest authoritarian powers. Putin’s war may come to be seen as the turning point at which the free world recognized that democracy is not a natural given that everyone will sooner or later get the chance to adopt.

The NATO alliance is likely to be expanded, and it will be harder for regimes such as that of Hun Sen to pay lip service to democracy while practicing authoritarianism and courting authoritarian allies. 

The Cambodian prime minister appears to have decided that there is little point pretending. He said on July 6 that unlike the parliamentary system, where decisions need approval from a national assembly and a senate, the “executive system” simply needs a decision by the prime minister. Most people call that a dictatorship. 

Democratic oversight

Democracy and representative institutions, the free world now understands, are achievements that need to be actively defended against forces that will do whatever is necessary to destroy them. 

While Putin enters through the front door with guns blazing, China operates quietly in a way designed to avoid triggering an international crisis. It calculates there is a lack of political will, both in Southeast Asia and globally, to resist its expansion aims.

Whether it wins or loses the war in Ukraine, Russia will emerge severely weakened and will have few options other than to become a junior partner of Beijing.

Yet there is nothing inevitable or irreversible about Chinese military expansion. Under-the-table deals for secret military bases thrive on the opacity of dictatorship: Most of the countries with which China seeks military partnerships are far from democratic.

That’s because such agreements are most effectively prevented by strong, transparent governing institutions, with the government being held accountable at the ballot box. This is far from being the case in Cambodia.

The Cambodian people would never vote to compromise their country’s independence as Hun Sen has done. They would oppose any attempt to do so at the ballot box – if they had the chance.

The best way to ensure stability in Southeast Asia and beyond is through supporting free and fair elections leading to institutional reform.

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