Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 29, 2019. Photo: AFP/Madoka Ikegami/Pool

It is always sound policy for observers of international politics to greet reports from intelligence agencies with a raised eyebrow and caustic smile.

All intelligence agencies have their own agendas, and they are by definition staffed by people inclined towards conspiracy theories and disaster scenarios.

It is only when leaked intelligence material fits into a pattern of proven truths, and when a government allows a named official to publicly support the intelligence allegation that it is worth taking the story half seriously.

For these reasons, the claim that China will build its own military facility at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province on the Gulf of Thailand deserves re-examination.

The story first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on July 21 and was immediately denied with a suspicious amount of bluster by both the Chinese government and Cambodia’s leader of 34 years, Hun Sen.

Hun Sen dismissed the story, saying Cambodia’s constitution forbids the country from hosting foreign military bases. But as he has driven a bulldozer through every major aspect of the Cambodian constitution to keep himself in power for decades, and made the country little more than Beijing’s vassal state, invoking the constitution is not a convincing argument.

For Beijing, acquiring a naval base at the heart of Southeast Asia would be a significant security and force-projection multiplier when coupled with the seven military bases it has built on islands constructed on shoals in the South China Sea. It would also be one more gem in Beijing’s so-called “string of pearls” strategy, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and a full-blown military base in Djibouti.

Washington and other western administrations have been watching with suspicion and concern Beijing’s 20-year charm offensive aimed at Hun Sen. This has led to both the Cambodian economy and Cambodian foreign policy being dominated by Beijing’s interests.

It may well have been a sly scheme by Washington to test the strength of the Sino-Cambodian ties when in June the United States offered to renovate and enhance Cambodian facilities at the Ream Naval Base.

Cambodian naval personnel on boats berthed at a jetty at the Ream naval base in Preah Sihanouk province on July 26, 2019, during a government-organized media tour. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

This was probably an effort to put Beijing and the Phnom Penh governments on the spot. Washington had been closely watching what was going on at the Ream Naval Base since January 2017 when the Hun Sen regime announced it was ending annual military exercises with the US. Instead, Cambodia is now holding yearly exercises with the Chinese military.

In the face of denials by both Phnom Penh and Beijing that China will construct its own naval facilities at the Ream Naval Base, the US decided to go public. Last week Brigadier General Joel B Vowell, a senior officer in the Indo-Pacific Command, said Washington has firm evidence that Beijing plans to begin construction early next year of PLA Navy facilities at the Cambodian base.

Vowell said the US is also concerned about the construction by a Chinese company of a suspiciously large airstrip and airport associated with a resort development in Koh Kong province, 70 kilometers from the naval base. The supposition is that this could be used as an airbase to give security and support to PLA Navy ships operating out of Ream Naval Base.

Intelligence officers and analysts get paid to imagine the worst. So it is wise for the moment to note Washington’s speculations and tuck them away in a mental drawer for later consideration.

What is beyond doubt, however, is that Hun Sen is now the poster boy par excellence for Beijing’s campaign to seduce Southeast Asian leaders into making themselves tributary vassals.

As well as opening his country to rapacious development by Chinese companies, Hun Sen is an important political ally for Beijing. On several occasions, he has blocked consensus among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on the South China Sea.

Members of the elite Cambodian prime minister’s bodyguard unit posted outside the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on November 18, 2012, during the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit. Cambodia blocked any mention of the South China Sea disputes at the meeting. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

Beijing’s claim to own most of the sea is contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Hun Sen has been Beijing’s man in Asean and blocked all attempts to present a united front.    

Efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to gain influence in Cambodia go back to the 1950s. Mao Zedong’s great diviner of vanity and master of flattery, Premier Zhou Enlai, enveloped Cambodian ruler Norodom Sihanouk in charm and established a special friendship between Beijing and Phnom Penh.

That was the case even through the horrendous years of the killing fields under the Khmer Rouge – which China supported – and which Sihanouk, still the country’s figurehead leader, managed to survive.

The four years of genocide came to an end in 1979 when the Vietnamese army invaded and ousted the Khmer Rouge. This was when Hun Sen appeared, first as foreign minister put into place by Hanoi, and then, in 1985 as prime minister.

In line with the feelings of his Vietnamese backers, Hun Sen started out vehemently anti-Beijing. In 1988, he described the People’s Republic of China as “the root of everything that is evil.” 

The next year Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia and there followed a civil war with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. The United Nations became involved and a peace agreement led to internationally monitored elections in 1993.

These elections were won by the royalist party, Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh. But Hun Sen kicked up such a fuss, making is clear that if he was not in government there would be civil war, that the international community gave in.

Hun Sen and Ranariddh served as joint prime ministers, though this was never a sustainable relationship.

Beijing had identified Hun Sen as the sort of tough authoritarian with whom it could do business. He was invited to China in July 1996 – the other prime minister, Prince Ranariddh, significantly, was not – where Hun Sen signed off on a raft of trade, investment and political agreements.

How far Beijing went in assuring Hun Sen its patronage of him was secure is not known. Nor cannot it be known if Hun Sen relied on that patronage when he launched his bloody coup in July 1997 and took full control of Cambodia.

What is established fact is that when the international community imposed sanctions on Hun Sen’s regime, Beijing came to his rescue. Trade, investment and development aid from Beijing were all ramped up to cover the shortfall caused by the sanctions.

Since then Hun Sen has worked diligently to undermine, degrade and eviscerate the democratic constitution written under UN tutelage. Knowing that Beijing has his back, Hun Sen has overseen the outlawing of the main opposition party, the eradication of civil society organizations – especially those with US backing – and the throttling of the independent media.

The pay-off for Beijing has been massive. National laws and the constitution have been ignored so that vast tracts of land could be ceded to Chinese companies for development. This includes about 20% of Cambodia’s coastline on the Gulf of Thailand. Beijing is also allowed to bring in gangs of its own workers to build those projects, and in many cases Hun Sen’s regime has displaced thousands of Cambodians to clear the land for development.

Cambodia is being refashioned as a holiday resort for the People’s Republic of China, an outpost for its naval ambitions and a glowing example of the possible fruits of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

But trickle-down economics works no better in Cambodia than elsewhere – the average Cambodian still makes only US$1,000 per year.

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