China’s Military Ambitions in Southeast Asia: Much Bigger than Cambodian Bases

This week, we saw another round of headlines regarding China’s basing plans in Cambodia, with the country’s demolition of U.S.-funded facility at Ream Naval Base exacerbating earlier fears about the country’s possible granting of basing privileges to the Chinese navy. While a focus on this development is important in and of itself given its broader geopolitical implications, it is also critical to ensure that an excessive emphasis on rhetorical “base wars” does not distract attention from the broader military inroads Beijing is already making in the region.

As I have noted before, including in a research report for The Wilson Center, while episodic attention to individual Chinese inroads in defense relationships with Southeast Asian states over the past decade or so – from new China-Philippines coast guard mechanisms to Malaysia’s unprecedented purchase of Chinese naval vessels – is important for its own sake, it can also obscure the bigger picture, wherein Beijing has been systematically building the outlines of a regional security architecture of its own as part of its growing influence in the Indo-Pacific through a series of exercises, dialogues, and facilities. Southeast Asia is the region where this has manifested most clearly.

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