China Has Designs on Democracy in Southeast Asia

A Base in Cambodia Is Only the Beginning

In January 2019, Dan Coats, then the U.S. director of national intelligence, warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that Cambodia’s “slide toward autocracy” could enable China to establish a military presence in the country. Such a move would pose a grave threat to regional stability and to the political independence of many Southeast Asian nations.

An armed Chinese presence on Cambodian soil would violate Cambodia’s constitution, as well as the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements that ended its long civil war. To be sure, Beijing is Cambodia’s largest source of aid, credit, and investment, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s corrupt, authoritarian regime relies heavily on Chinese patronage. But allowing Chinese troops in Cambodia is a political “red line” that Hun Sen cannot risk crossing, at least publicly.

Cambodian defense officials derided the U.S. intelligence chief’s statement as “fake news.” Hun Sen, too, issued vehement denials, repeatedly proclaiming that Cambodia’s constitution forbids foreign bases—as if the very existence of the prohibition made a Chinese troop presence impossible. But recent reports have suggested that the two countries have signed a secret deal giving the Chinese military exclusive access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, and a leaked document details a previously undisclosed visit that a team of Chinese military surveyors made to Cambodia.

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