At the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, People’s Republic of China (PRC) Defense Minister Wei Fenghe dismissed a question on whether the PRC is seeking a future military presence in Cambodia (VOA Cambodia, June 3). This question arose following an assessment by the U.S. intelligence community that autocratic developments in Cambodia—particularly the single-party dominance of Cambodia’s legislature, which has extended Prime Minister Hu Sen’s tenure and made possible a constitutional amendment permitting a foreign military presence in the country—had increased the possibility of a Chinese military presence on Cambodian soil (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, January 29). Cambodian officials exacerbated these concerns in June when they withdrew a 2017 request to the United States for funds to upgrade facilities at the Ream naval base near Sihanoukville (Radio Free Asia, July 2; Observer Network, July 2).
Recent media reports have indicated that Cambodia signed a “secret agreement” giving the PRC use of Ream, where it may station military servicemen and warships, for 30 years (WSJ, July 22). Although Cambodian and Chinese officials vehemently deny the existence of this agreement, gaining access to Ream is broadly consistent with Chinese foreign policy. The PRC appears to be employing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funding to further strategic cooperation with Cambodia through the construction of potential dual-use infrastructure. Ream naval base is the latest in a network of regional security projects—including Cambodia’s Dara Sakor investment zone and Thailand’s Kra Canal—which, taken together, significantly improve Chinese power projection into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
News of the Ream agreement raises the specter of increasing Chinese maritime militarization at a time of intense unease in Southeast Asia. Conspicuously silent in this latest controversy is India, which has significant economic and military interests in Southeast Asia. This article will discuss the security infrastructure China is building in Cambodia and its implications for Indian interests in the region.
Chinese Investments in Southeast Asian Security Infrastructure
China’s 2019 National Defense White Paper (NDWP) emphasized developing far seas capabilities and overseas logistical facilities so that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) can ensure Chinese maritime interests and secure strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs) globally (Ministry of National Defense (China), July 24). The most critical SLOC passes through the Malacca Strait, on which the PRC is heavily dependent for energy imports (China Brief, April 12, 2006). More naval basing options near the Strait—and opportunities to circumvent it altogether—would improve China’s naval power in the region, and may position the PLAN to project presence further into the IOR.
The PRC is pursuing several infrastructure investments that would significantly increase its naval capabilities in and beyond the Gulf of Thailand. The oldest is Dara Sakor, a 139 square mile territory comprising 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline, where Chinese companies have secured a 99-year lease. A significant BRI investment, Dara Sakor is the target of $3.8 billion in Chinese investments to build an international airport, a deep-water port, and an industrial park alongside resort facilities (Bangkok Post, July 20; C4ADS, April 17, 2018; People’s Daily, December 26, 2016). U.S. analysts have long suspected that the investment holds dual civilian and military purposes: the airport has an unusually long runway able to support any plane in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), and the deep-water port, when constructed, would be large enough to host PLAN warships (SCMP, March 5).
The Dara Sakor airport and projected seaport sit at the edge of the Botum Sakor peninsula, across the Bay of Kompong Som from the Ream naval base. Between the two sites is Sihanoukville, which houses Cambodia’s only current deep-water port and where Chinese entities invested over $1.1 billion in 2018 (SCMP, August 7, 2018). Reinforcing the PRC’s interest in Sihanoukville, three PLAN warships made an official visit to Sihanoukville in early 2019 and docked for four days (Phnom Penh Post, January 7). Although the Sihanoukville port is unlikely to be used for Chinese naval operations, the positive relationship the PRC has cultivated with the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port authority will support coordination around the Bay of Kompong Som should PLAN warships begin operating out of Dara Sakor or Ream.
While these ports and potential naval bases would significantly bolster PLAN naval projection on their own, the PRC is also leveraging BRI funds to advocate the construction of the Kra Canal across the Gulf of Thailand (The Independent, October 2, 2016). The canal would create SLOCs which effectively bypass the Strait of Malacca and improve access to the IOR: passage through the canal would reduce the distance Chinese ships currently must sail to reach Indian ports by nearly 750 miles (Firstpost, November 5, 2018).
The Threat to India’s Presence in the Andaman Sea
Current PLAN presence in the IOR has already raised concerns for India. At the 2019 Raisina Dialogue, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba commented that at any time, there are six to eight PLAN submarines patrolling the IOR—ostensibly to protect Chinese trading vessels and conduct anti-piracy operations (Economic Times, January 10). Indian analysts have long suspected this presence was an excuse for the PRC to gather intelligence on “the underwater operating environment in the sub-continental littorals” (ORF, February 9).
The Indian response to increasing PLAN presence in the IOR is militarizing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI). An Indian Union territory, these islands are strategically located approximately 620 miles from the Malacca Strait and 400 miles from the projected Kra Canal. India has also been making regular arms purchases to equip its three bases on the ANI. In 2009, the United States sold India eight P-8I aircraft, a long-range maritime patrol plane with extensive monitoring, intelligence-gathering, and anti-submarine capabilities. New Delhi has since purchased further P-8Is in 2016 and June 2019 (Swarajya, June 26). The United States recently sold India twenty-four MH-60R Seahawk helicopters with anti-submarine capabilities, and has offered twenty-two MQ-9 Guardian drones for maritime surveillance (Economic Times, April 3; Hindustan Times, June 9). India has reportedly approved a 10-year, $700 million plan to fund additional facilities for troops, warships, aircraft, drones, and missile batteries for the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), the Indian Armed Forces tri-service theater command based on the islands (Times of India, January 26).
Although India is improving its capabilities to track and engage PLAN presence in the IOR, as of 2018 the Indian Navy only had 137 ships, while the PLAN has more than 300 (Economic Times, July 8, 2018; SCMP, May 26). PLAN operations out of Dara Sakor and Ream would further tilt the regional balance of power in China’s favor. First, local basing options will increase the already-growing number of PLAN warships and submarines entering the IOR through the Malacca Strait. Should the Kra Canal be constructed, Chinese vessels will have better access to the Andaman Sea, putting significant pressure on India’s capacity to monitor the increased traffic. Indian military planners are reportedly worried about China’s interest in the canal for precisely this reason (SCMP, July 19).
Further, Dara Sakor airport is approximately 740 miles from ANC military bases, putting Indian forces well within range of Chinese strategic bombers. If Chinese air and naval bases at Ream and Dara Sakor become a reality, India will likely face urgent tests of its already-underfunded military (The New York Times, March 3; The Straits Times, March 5).
Fear of China and Growing Indian Influence in Southeast Asia
India has sought multilateral solutions to address Chinese presence in the IOR. In December 2018, then-Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the opening of an Information Fusion Center for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) based outside New Delhi. Friendly nations were invited to post liaison officers to share information and organize responses to developing situations. The United States, Japan, and Singapore were among the first to express interest in posting officers. To expand its outreach and joint capabilities, India should make meaningful efforts to encourage Southeast Asian countries that are threatened by China’s aggressive actions—including Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand—to post liaison officers. Such a move would increase military-to-military connections between these countries (The Week, December 22, 2018).
A heightened PLAN presence in Cambodia could push Southeast Asia closer to India. Over the past several years, India’s investments and outreach to the region have bred goodwill. The Modi administration’s “Act East Policy” places the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the center of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. In the recent ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said, “We want to see a strong, unified and prosperous ASEAN playing a central role in the emerging dynamic of the Indo-Pacific as it contributes to India’s prosperity and security as well” (Times of India, August 2).
India has increasingly invested in infrastructure and military projects in the region commensurate with its economic interests, emphasizing port construction and infrastructure projects connecting Southeast Asia with India’s northeastern states (Economic Times, December 12, 2017; MEA.gov.in, August 2018). In May 2018, Indonesia agreed to give India economic and military access to the strategic Sabang Port, which neighbors Indian facilities on the ANI and is located approximately 310 miles from the Malacca Strait. Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs, noted, “the port’s 40-meter depth is suitable for all kinds of vessels, including submarines” (Hindustan Times, May 17, 2018). An Indian naval warship, INS Sumitra, and coast guard ship, ICGS Vijit, have since visited the port in July 2018 and March 2019, respectively (Economic Times, March 20).
Other Southeast Asian states may be following Indonesia’s lead. Since 2014, Vietnam has conducted joint oil exploration with an Indian company in the SCS, despite protests from Beijing. New Delhi and Hanoi have a burgeoning defense relationship, recently holding a joint military drill in the Bay of Bengal and discussing arms sales in the past (The Hindu Business, November 21, 2018). Thailand and Myanmar have both similarly engaged in talks to purchase weapons from India (Economic Times, August 1; Financial Express, July 21). Vietnam has a special incentive to balance against China: Ream would strategically encircle Vietnam with the Ream naval base to the west, the Paracel Islands to the east, and the Spratly Island bases to the southeast. These bases will likely give Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries a sense of strategic insecurity, which may convince them to join India in balancing against China.
Ream is the latest in a series of concerted steps China is taking to dominate the regional security architecture. So why the silence from New Delhi? Despite the Modi government’s advocacy for a “rules-based order” in a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and its recent defense purchases, India simply lacks the economic and military capability to challenge the PRC. Immediately condemning China’s secret agreement would upset Sino-Indian relations in the lead up to the Modi-Xi informal summit scheduled for October in Varanasi, India. The meeting is a follow up to the Wuhan summit that is credited with stabilizing relations after the Doklam crisis in the summer of 2017. The Varanasi summit’s outcome should provide insight into the trajectory of Sino-Indian relations.
Both leaders will attend the summit with significant domestic support. PM Modi’s party deepened its parliamentary majority in May and now faces a disorganized opposition. Xi is no longer subject to constitutional term limits and has no designated successor in place. The Indian government might see the leaders’ positions as an opportunity to settle the long-running border dispute with China, but New Delhi’s recent decision to change Kashmir’s constitutional status and Beijing’s insecurities over Tibet will complicate any negotiation on this issue (China Brief, July 16; The Hindu, August 6). Since the Wuhan summit, India and China have attempted to refocus the relationship from contentious issues between them to areas of cooperation and mutual benefit. The Varanasi summit will be a prime test of India’s cooperative policy.
Some analysts predict that India and China will downplay geopolitical differences in favor of economic cooperation: India may reduce its trade deficit with China, which in turn may rely on India as a trade partner in the face of pressures from the United States (Millenium Post, July 29). In this way India finds itself in the same position as the countries of Southeast Asia: concerned by Chinese actions, but unwilling to damage the economic relationship. However, a failure on Modi’s part to advocate for India’s Southeast Asian partners might damage India’s attempts to portray itself as an effective alternative to Chinese economic and military assistance.
John Foulkes is a Program Associate for Jamestown’s Global Terrorism Analysis program. He graduated with distinction from the University of North Carolina with a focus on international security and South Asian affairs.
Howard Wang is the China Program Assistant at The Jamestown Foundation. He received his MPP from the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy.