A naval base in Cambodia supports China’s calibrated aggression
China this week vehemently denied a Washington Post report that it is covertly constructing a naval base in Cambodia. How to evaluate assurances of beneficent intent issuing forth from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpieces? Three bits of advice: Look at your map. Study past CCP practice. And remember that all such efforts to placate Asian and world opinion are perishable. They’re expedients, nothing more. A pledge’s shelf-life expires once Beijing decides it has outlived its usefulness.
Calibrate your Ockam’s Razor accordingly. The strategic logic behind such a move is impeccable, while Communist China has a long history of surrounding and occupying territory at its neighbors’ expense. Call it encirclement and conquest by increments. Denials from Xi Jinping & Co. ring hollow in view of the party’s record.
One, geography. As the cartographically-minded President Franklin Roosevelt might counsel, the map of Southeast Asia reveals why a Cambodian harbor would be so valuable to CCP strategy. Beijing asserts “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea, contrary to the law of the sea and authoritative rulings from international tribunals. That means it asserts state ownership of these waters, flouting the settled legal principle that no coastal state owns the sea.
To make itself sovereign, China must deploy a monopoly of physical force throughout geographic space it claims, just as it commands a monopoly of force within its frontiers on dry earth. That way it can compel others to obey its wishes. But policing the sea is far harder than policing land because of the daunting logistics of keeping ships and planes on station, far from their coastal bases back home, on a more or less constant basis. China’s much-discussed artificial island bases in the Spratlys and Paracels help ameliorate that problem to the north, but the South China Sea is a big place, sprawling over 1,800 miles from the southern tip of Taiwan to the eastern entryway to the Strait of Malacca. Distance makes it tough on People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) and China Coast Guard assets to patrol this waterway’s distant reaches in force.
Beijing is not sovereign unless it has a standing presence in embattled waters and skies.
So, the benefits of a naval station in Cambodia would be legion. Such an outpost would give Chinese seafarers and aviators a haven near contested southerly expanses, helping them mount the stifling presence they enjoy elsewhere in the South China Sea. Side benefits would include turning the southern flank of Vietnam, a neighbor with which China is constantly at odds over maritime claims. A base would boost the navy’s ability to operate along the approaches to the Malacca Strait. That would help alleviate what erstwhile President Hu Jintao called China’s “Malacca Dilemma,” meaning the menace of a naval blockade that cuts China’s energy imports from the Middle East.
CCP potentates may say they have no designs on a Cambodian seaport, but they would be foolish not to avail themselves of an opportunity to turn geography to strategic advantage. These are not fools.
Two, history. Over the decades the CCP has developed a pattern for purloining territory from China’s neighbors. It chooses a target for aggression and isolates it from potential allies, assuring China vastly outmuscles the target. It selects an optimal time when powerful outsiders — the United States chief among them — are embroiled or distracted elsewhere and unlikely to intervene to confound aggression. And then it makes its move using a bare minimum of armed force. It takes what it wants, occupies it, and defies anyone to reverse its action at the risk of warfare or economic reprisals. Few have the gumption.
This pattern was on display in 1974, when the PLA Navy and maritime militia wrested some of the Paracel Islands from a South Vietnam teetering on the brink of defeat. America had no appetite to go back to Southeast Asia having just pulled out of Vietnam. It surfaced again in the 1990s, when Chinese forces occupied and subsequently fortified Mischief Reef, deep within the Philippines’ “exclusive economic zone,” waters reserved for Manila’s sole use. Preoccupied with Balkan wars and having been recently evicted from its Philippine bases, Washington evinced little desire to involve itself. And it was on display most recently starting in 2013, when Chinese engineers manufactured island outposts atop Spratly and Paracel atolls, reefs and seamounts. Middle East wars foreclosed any U.S. intervention.
If Beijing wants to make good on its claims vis-à-vis rival claimants in the southerly recesses of the South China Sea, its navy and coast guard need to contend with rivals including not just Vietnam but Indonesia, a power of significant heft. A nearby base would help. News of Cambodian base construction conforms to the CCP’s history of diplomatic opportunism and calibrated aggression.
And three, politics. Never take CCP professions of goodwill on faith. Just to cast about randomly in my aging cranium, Beijing is a charter member of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the “constitution for the oceans” it’s now trying to eviscerate with its outsized claims to maritime jurisdiction. It long pursued a “charm offensive” meant to lull Asians into believing China was a uniquely benign great power with no designs on their territory. CCP officialdom no longer bothers to conceal its lust for territory. For years Beijing swore it would never seek foreign military bases, only to open one in Djibouti in 2017 and go hunting for more — including one, potentially, in the South Atlantic. Xi Jinping promised President Barack Obama not to “militarize” its artificial islands, only to fortify them and equip them to operate ships and planes of war.
Bottom line, the Chinese Communist Party has every incentive to seek out a Cambodian base and makes it standard practice to dissemble about its intentions and deeds. That it has gone back to its proven playbook is the safest assumption. Just ask William of Ockam.
James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.
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