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[Analytics] Chinese military base speculation hurts Cambodian people

Philippine marines on exercise with their Amphibious Assault Vehicles during a landing at a beach facing the South China Sea north of Manila on September 21, 2019. Tensions are rising between the Philippines and China. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

I have always been baffled by the frequent discussion on possible Chinese military base installations in Cambodia in certain media outlets. Cambodia is a small country and it is surprisingly honoured to receive such attention. Kokthay Eng specially for the Khmer Times.

Cambodia has now enjoyed 22 years of peace and the idea of a foreign military facility or control is so farfetched that none of the Cambodian leaders gave any thought of it other than after the accusation from abroad that this can happen. In fact the systematic media coverage on this matter has itself manufactured an imagination and slowly manifested itself into a make-belief story. Soon it may become the opposition’s domestic political matter and an obstacle in dialogue between Cambodia and her partners.

Today Cambodia has desired only economic and human development to reinvent her identity away from a war-torn country, a genocide survivor and a pawn of superpower ideological contestation, which is all the more shocking to learn that Cambodia’s dark past has been forgotten so swiftly by the international community. Cambodia now is being branded as treading a tight rope in geopolitics. Cambodia wants to be identified as a modern, prosperous and welcoming nation.

Prime Minister Hun Sen stated in 1999, immediately after the implosion of Khmer Rouge military apparatus, that our country’s priority was no longer preventing the return of the Khmer Rouge, but in his own words, “First, economy; second, economy; and third economy.” This objective has been achieved with multiple strategies including sound macroeconomic policy, development of the garment industry to kick start Cambodia’s nascent export sector, revitalisation of tourism in Siem Reap and other provinces, attracting foreign direct investments, improving national infrastructure, integration and rehabilitation of former combatants, demining and foreign aids.

At the same time that Cambodian economy has grown at a steady pace of 7% over twenty years, raising her status from a least developed country to lower middle-income nation in 2016. Foreign aid gradually decreased, as donors believed that humanitarian crisis in the Middle-East and Africa required more urgent attention. This meant that a large portion of Cambodian skilled workforce relying heavily on Western grants became unemployed as their non-governmental organisations shuttered. They began integrating into the expanding and better rewarded government and private sectors. This change has given a wrong impression of civil society organisations in Cambodia that they will collapse due to government restrictions. In fact foreign donors abandoned them after nearly three decades of support, mostly without unemployment benefits.

The withdrawal of major bilateral Western grants from Cambodia has created a void within Cambodia’s development process. This coincided with the rise of Chinese economic and thereby military capabilities within the Indo-Pacific region, as well as a more mature Chinese aid programs. This Chinese global appearance culminated with President Xi Jinping’s adoption of the Belt and Road Initiative, placing Cambodia in the fourth land-based economic corridor from Kunming to Indochina, Thailand and Malaysia. Since then Cambodia has performed well under this BRI program. She has consistently ranked fourth in cultural connectivity with China and ranked lower in economic cooperation only due to her small GDP size. This rank belongs to Thailand and Vietnam which are in the top five economic partners among 138 BRI member countries in the world.

The objectives of the Prime Minister has largely been met in the last 20 years, and Cambodia is gradually becoming an economic machine free from foreign aid dependency which is a negative effect of a post-war country’s overreliance on assistance, in particular a country traumatised by genocide. Cambodia has not relied on a specific natural resources such as hydroelectricity, timber, oil, gold, diamonds and other minerals for the recent growth. Her development has largely been based upon prudent development strategies and careful spending. Cambodian people have been thankful for EBA and GSP which spurred the garment industry, giving jobs to nearly a million workers and which should not be withdrawn.

The international community should stop casting doubts on Cambodia’s honesty as an economic nation, rather than having a military ambition. Nor should they doubt Cambodia’s ability to protect her independence and sovereignty. The only time Cambodia nearly returned to war was with Thailand in 2007 over the sovereignty of the hill-top Preah Vihear temple, which the ICJ granted to Cambodia in 1962. It was a confrontation that Cambodia did not want. Cambodia was wrongfully accused of taking sides in the 1960s during the height of the Vietnam War when she was reproached for harboring communist insurgents and thereby deserved military actions. In hindsight, Cambodia had nothing to do with communist expansion and Prince Norodom Sihanouk only wanted his country to stay out of the war. If the communists were in Cambodia, they were there without his consent. However, increasing Western hostility towards the Prince forced him to side with China who has remained loyal to the royal family today. This long-term relationship in turn is good for Chinese reputation as a reliable partner.

I understand the speculations about Chinese military bases in Koh Kong and Sihanoukville provinces of Cambodia. The concession is 100 years and nobody would know what will happen after that. This is learnt through the 19th and 20th centuries, or before that, in which Western countries grabbed land in Africa, America and Asia and turned them into colonies and protectorates. Hong Kong was only reverted back to China in 1997 after 155 years of British control. Macau was handed over from Portugal in 1999 after 442 years. Many Southeast Asian countries, except Thailand, gained independence in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s from France, Holland, Britain and Portugal. Even then, Hong Kong is not a waste, it is a financial hub of Asia and its people have enjoyed a high degree of prosperity. Macau is the same. The lesson from Hong Kong gave rise to neighboring Shenzhen in her development of the SEZ formula in 1980 with free-market economy. In turn the example from Shenzhen kick started China’s opening, with other SEZ establishments and overall economic development based on free trade. Conversely, in 100 years, things can change for the better for Cambodia and Southeast Asia. Dara Sakor can turn out to be an economic engine that could drive the Cambodian economy and neighboring states with people moving in and out of the area freely for economic purpose. One certainty is that China is not intending to downgrade her reputation in her way to become an economic super power by duping an innocent neighboring country or debilitating her economy by suddenly demanding debt repayment or trapping her in military treaties. China needs more friends among her potential partners.

The accusation of military installations in Cambodia is based largely upon satellite imageries and circumstantial evidence. The destruction of a US-funded, relatively small maintenance building at Ream naval base was out of necessity than a breakdown in US-Cambodia relations. Military relations between the two nations in the field of terrorism, MIA, UXO and cross-border crimes remain strong. Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced for a joint development of a new building if there is a willingness by foreign friends to provide funding. Joint China-Cambodia military exercises have been focused more on counter-terrorism and emergency response.

The fact is that nobody has been able to match China in terms of finance, development intensity, certainty and speed. The insecurity deriving from this is a run-away horse of speculations of other Cambodia-China collaborations, most painfully military, which exclude certain countries. But this is a conjecture which tarnishes Cambodia’s reputation, as well as China’s.

I urge academics and journalists to exercise restraint and careful investigation based on facts before accusing this poor nation, still recovering from the trauma of genocide, in discussing Cambodian security and her dealings with neighboring countries. They should explore alternative possibilities in Cambodia and China’s relationship.

Kokthay ENG, PhD, is a former Fulbright Scholar, a genocide researcher and currently the director of Cambodian Institute for Peace and Development. He has published papers on Islamic revitalisation in Cambodia and Khmer Rouge history.

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