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Is access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base really beneficial for China? – Diplomat


China’s ability to establish a naval base in Cambodia has received widespread attention since the publication of its report. The Wall Street Journal in mid-2019, it was claimed that Cambodia had signed a confidentiality agreement allowing the People’s Liberation Army Navy to access the Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. Much of this attention is devoted to speculating what this means for Cambodia’s relations with China and the United States, as well as its potential to increase its expanding military presence. of China in the region.

However, China’s attention to Cambodia’s naval facilities often ignores the geographic reality of Cambodia. As we know, geography is very important to understand the strategic importance of military operations, and has profoundly communicated the capabilities, limitations, and vulnerabilities of the armed forces throughout human history. In this particular case, Cambodia’s geography shows that China cannot gain much strategic advantage by equipping military facilities on the Kingdom’s coast.

Most notably, the waters off the coast of Cambodia are not deep enough to be used by a powerful navy. These waters, in the Gulf of Thailand, average around 50 meters deep. Where this base is said to be located, on the bay of Kampong Som, water only 5 to 10 meters deep.

These depths will not allow China to carry out major naval actions in the Gulf, and the use of submarines, one of the most powerful weapons in any naval operation, will be impractical. To ensure attack ability, submarines must create low noise and electromagnetic waves to avoid radar, something that would be a challenge in shallow waters like the Gulf of Thailand.

In addition to the logistical constraints posed by these shallow waters, there is also the question of its location, which simply does not matter much in relation to international sea lanes.

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Several commentators have tried to explain the geographic significance of the Ream Naval Base by pointing out that it could act as a Pit stop for China to protect and control its shipping routes in the Strait of Malacca – a congestion point of many pirates infiltration and strategic for China, as it relies on energy imports. through the strait.

However, this explanation is not convincing. Will China need to access the Ream Naval Base for this purpose when it already has access to an outpost at the Cross Rock of the Spratly Islands? Existing Chinese facilities are more than capable of providing such assistance without resorting to Cambodian territory.

In addition, the establishment of a Chinese base in Cambodia could provoke the security escalation of Cambodia’s neighbors while giving China a relatively meager strategic advantage. The best way to understand this is to assess the security developments of Cambodia’s neighbors and their links to the United States.

On the surface, in recent years Cambodia’s western neighbor Thailand seems to be moving closer to Beijing and away from Washington. But that’s not the full story. Despite increasing arms agreements and military exercises with China, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government has also signed Selling weapons 400 million dollars with the US in 2019. The arms deal comes after a bilateral meeting between Prayut and President Donald Trump at the White House in 2017.

The strength of the Thai-US relationship was fully demonstrated in an interview given by a Thai military officer. Center for Strategic and Defense Studies at Australian National University, where he testified to the close defense relationship with Washington, fostered over decades: “Even though we have [Swedish] Grippen fighters, we still use American doctrine. We use Chinese tanks, but we still use American doctrine. We learned it at the Command and Staff College. The organization of our units is also still based on the US “

Meanwhile, in eastern Cambodia, Vietnam also continued to expand its defense capabilities and cooperate more closely with the US on security matters. Notably, as tensions in the South China Sea increased, Vietnam did not go public official defense purchase, but it is ranked in 11 countries buy top weapons in the period 2012-2019. In 2016, the Obama administration was lifted arms embargo Analysts were skeptical about Hanoi, over concerns related to China’s military growth and assertive actions in the South China Sea. Two years later, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson make a history port call in Vietnam and invite Vietnam to join Pacific rim, the world’s largest marine exercise held every two years by the US Navy in 2018.

To be sure, neither Vietnam nor Thailand is willing to welcome any external powers competing for power in the region. But China-built outposts in Cambodia will only give these neighbors extra incentive to respond to security agreements with the US and its partners, which will lead to even more competition. with China.

Ultimately, the benefits of any Chinese military deal with Phnom Penh appear to be based on the eventual construction of a long-envisioned canal across the narrow Kra Strait in southern Thailand, a project. that Beijing has been very interested in in recent years.

Known as the Kra Canal, the project will be a strategic game changer in Southeast Asia, creating a direct sea link between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand and providing a solution. Alternative to the Strait of Malacca will reduce sailing time between India and the Pacific by two or three days. China’s interest in the canal stems from long-standing efforts to reduce its heavy dependence on the Strait of Malacca, an issue that former Chinese President Hu Jintao once described as “The Chinese dilemma in Malacca. “

China’s efforts to invest in military projects in Cambodia may once be in line with a strategy revolving around the construction of the Kra Canal, the canal’s eastern entrance to be located near the Naval Base. Ream. After all, a similar strategy worked for Great Britain and the United States when they took control of the Suez and Panama Canal respectively in the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately for China, the Kra Canal project comes at a cost. Now the giant seems unable to continue, being replaced by a proposition for “Earth Bridge” across the Kra isthmus – a project not heavily used by the PLAN.

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In short, a potential Chinese base on the Cambodian coast is unlikely to give China any major strategic advantage, nor will it be of much benefit to the country in the event of actions taken. great military action. Given the high risk and limited strategic advantage for China, it is clear that Chinese military installations in Cambodia, if truly being planned, would be a worthless proposition, making Beijing has to pay much more than they will be offered.

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