China vehemently denied this week a Washington Post report that he is secretly building a naval base in Cambodia. How to evaluate the assurances of benevolent intention issued by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spokespersons? Three tips: Look at your map. Study the CCP’s past practices. And remember that all these efforts to appease Asian and world opinion are perishable. These are expedients, nothing more. A pledge’s shelf life expires once Beijing decides it’s out of use.
Calibrate your Ockam razor accordingly. The strategic logic behind such a move is impeccable, as communist China has a long history of encirclement and occupation of territory at the expense of its neighbors. Call it incremental encirclement and conquest. Xi Jinping & Co.’s denials ring hollow given the party’s record.
One, geography. As cartographically-minded President Franklin Roosevelt might advise, the map of Southeast Asia reveals why a Cambodian port would be so valuable to CCP strategy. Beijing asserts “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea, unlike the law of the sea and authoritative decisions international courts. This means that it asserts state ownership of these waters, flouting the established legal principle that no coastal state owns the sea.
To make itself sovereign, China must deploy a monopoly of physical force throughout the geographical space it claims, just as it commands a monopoly of force within its borders on the dry land. In this way, he can compel others to obey his wishes. But policing the sea is far more difficult than policing the land because of the daunting logistics of keeping ships and planes stationed, away from their home shore bases, on a more or less constant basis. China is hotly debated artificial island bases in the Spratlys and Paracels help solve this problem to the north, but the South China Sea is a large region, stretching 1,800 miles from the southern tip of Taiwan to the eastern entrance to the Strait of Malacca. The distance makes it difficult for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) and Chinese Coast Guard assets to patrol the remote reaches of this waterway in force.
Beijing is not sovereign unless it has a permanent presence in the embattled waters and skies.
Thus, the advantages of a naval station in Cambodia would be legion. Such an outpost would give Chinese sailors and airmen a safe haven near the disputed southern reaches, helping them mount the stifling presence they enjoy elsewhere in the South China Sea. Secondary benefits would include diverting the southern flank of Vietnam, a neighbor with which China is constantly at odds over maritime claims. A base would enhance the navy’s ability to operate along the approaches to the Straits of Malacca. This would help alleviate what former President Hu Jintao called China’s “Malacca dilemma”, that is, the threat of a naval blockade that cuts off China’s energy imports from the Middle East.
The CCP potentates may say they have no plans for a Cambodian seaport, but they would be foolish not to seize the opportunity to turn geography into a strategic advantage. They are not fools.
Two, story. Over the decades, the CCP has developed a pattern for stealing territory from China’s neighbors. It chooses a target of aggression and isolates it from potential allies, ensuring that China vastly outmatches the target. He selects an optimal time when powerful outsiders – the leader of the United States among them – are intermingled or distracted elsewhere and unlikely to intervene to confuse aggression. And then he moves using a bare minimum of armed force. He takes what he wants, occupies it, and challenges anyone to back down at the risk of war or economic retaliation. Few have the courage.
This model was exhibited in 1974, when the PLA Navy and Marine Militia ripped off some of the Paracel Islands of a South Vietnam on the verge of defeat. America had no desire to return to Southeast Asia after withdrawing from Vietnam. It resurfaced in the 1990s when Chinese forces occupied and then fortified Mischief Reef, deep within the Philippines’ “Exclusive Economic Zone”, waters reserved for the exclusive use of Manila. Preoccupied with the Balkan Wars and having recently been expelled from his Philippine bases, Washington has shown little desire to get involved. And it’s been on display more recently from 2013, when Chinese engineers crafted island outposts atop Spratly and Paracel atolls, reefs and seamounts. The wars in the Middle East prohibited any American intervention.
If Beijing is to assert its claim against its rivals in the southern recesses of the South China Sea, its navy and coastguard must face rivals, including not only Vietnam but also Indonesia, a power of considerable weight. A nearby base would help. News of the construction of a Cambodian base is consistent with the CCP’s history of diplomatic expediency and calibrated aggression.
And three, politics. Never take the CCP’s professions of goodwill on faith. To take a random peek into my aging skull, Beijing is a founding member of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the “constitution for the oceans” which it is now trying to eviscerate with its outsized claims to maritime jurisdiction. He has long pursued a “charm offensive” intended to lull Asians into believing that China is a particularly benign great power with no designs on their territory. The CCP bureaucracy no longer bothers to conceal its thirst for territory. For years, Beijing has sworn it would never look for foreign military bases, only to open one. in Djibouti in 2017 and go hunting for more – including one, potentially, in the South Atlantic. Xi Jinping promised President Barack Obama not to “weaponize” his artificial islands, but only to fortify them and equip them to operate warships and warplanes.
Ultimately, the Chinese Communist Party has every interest in seeking a Cambodian base and has a common practice of concealing its intentions and actions. That he returned to his tried and tested playbook is the safest guess. Ask Guillaume d’Ockam.
James R. Holmes is the JC Wylie Professor of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. The opinions expressed here are his own.