HomeUncategorizedChina Woos Cambodia as U.S. Watches Closely

China Woos Cambodia as U.S. Watches Closely

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China has been making significant strides to deepen its relationship with Cambodia. This courtship has been evident through various military collaborations and infrastructural investments, positioning Cambodia as a strategic ally in Southeast Asia. As China strengthens its foothold, the United States is closely monitoring these developments and seeking ways to counter Beijing’s influence.

China’s Strategic Moves in Cambodia

China and Cambodia recently concluded a joint naval drill as part of the “Golden Dragon 2024” military exercise. This drill, conducted off Cambodia’s southwestern coast, involved two Chinese ships docked at the Ream Naval Base since December 2023. The base, undergoing upgrades funded by China, serves as a focal point for China’s growing military presence in the region. The drill, which included around 1,300 Cambodian and 760 Chinese personnel, simulated a hostage rescue mission, showcasing the military cooperation between the two nations.

General Ith Sarath, chief of joint staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, emphasized that the exercise aimed to strengthen bilateral relations and enhance military capabilities without posing a threat to any country. “This drill is not at all threatening any country,” he stated, highlighting the peaceful intentions behind the exercise. Despite these assurances, the U.S. has expressed concerns over the potential for the Ream Naval Base to become a permanent Chinese military outpost.

The annual “Golden Dragon” exercises, which began in 2016, symbolize the deepening ties between China and Cambodia. Following the cancellation of similar exercises with the U.S. in 2017, Cambodia has increasingly leaned towards China for military support and training. This shift is evident in the substantial Chinese investments in Cambodian military facilities and the provision of new military equipment.

China’s influence extends beyond the military sphere. Cambodia has become a crucial part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), benefiting from significant infrastructure investments, including roads, airports, and high-rises. This financial support has bolstered Cambodia’s economy, making China its top trading partner and largest foreign investor.

U.S. Response to China’s Influence

The United States, recognizing the strategic implications of China’s growing presence in Cambodia, is seeking to mend and strengthen its ties with Phnom Penh. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is scheduled to visit Cambodia on June 4, following his participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. During his visit, Austin will meet with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, who succeeded his father, Hun Sen, in 2023.

Hun Manet, educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and New York University, represents a new generation of Cambodian leadership. Washington hopes his American education might incline him towards fostering closer relations with the U.S. Austin’s visit aims to explore new opportunities for collaboration while addressing U.S. concerns about human rights and democratic governance in Cambodia.

“We remain clear-eyed about some of our concerns in Cambodia, but at the same time we see the arrival of the new leadership allowing us to explore new opportunities,” said a U.S. official, expressing optimism about potential improvements in U.S.-Cambodia relations under Hun Manet’s leadership.

The U.S. remains particularly wary of the developments at the Ream Naval Base. Washington suspects that China intends to establish a permanent naval presence at this strategic location near the South China Sea. The ongoing presence of Chinese warships at the base has heightened these concerns. In response, U.S. officials plan to engage in diplomatic efforts to counter China’s influence and reinforce alliances with other regional partners.

Broader Implications for Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s alignment with China has significant implications for the region. As a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia’s support for China’s regional goals, such as its claims in the South China Sea, adds to Beijing’s leverage in regional politics. This alignment contrasts with the stances of other ASEAN members like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam, who contest China’s maritime claims.

Experts argue that Beijing’s influence in Cambodia serves its strategic interests in the South China Sea. Mark S. Cogan, an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Japan’s Kansai Gaidai University, commented on the significance of these military drills, saying they “reinforce pre-existing notions about the growing influence of China, particularly in matters of security.”

The U.S. aims to bolster its alliances in the Indo-Pacific, shifting towards a more integrated security framework that involves greater cooperation among its allies, including Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and South Korea. By reinforcing these alliances, the U.S. hopes to counterbalance China’s growing influence and maintain stability in the region.

Oren Samet, a PhD candidate at the University of California researching authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, noted that China’s support for Cambodia comes without the scrutiny and criticism often seen from Western countries. “In contrast with traditional Western donors, Beijing does not care at all about Cambodia’s human rights abuses or lack of democracy, and that works well for the Cambodian government,” he said, pointing out the advantages for Cambodia’s leadership in aligning with China.

Cambodia’s close relationship with China has also influenced its stance within ASEAN. Cambodia often supports China’s regional goals, including its political ambitions in the South China Sea, despite opposition from other ASEAN members. “Competition and conflict over the South China Sea have driven further sclerosis within ASEAN,” Samet added, highlighting the broader regional impact of Cambodia’s alignment with China.

Cambodia has not fully entered the liberal democratic world of the West, they have issues that China will ignore and the West will not. Unless Austin has an ace up his sleeve, we will likely lose them, at least in part.

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