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15 June 2022

With Grant Wyeth

China base in Cambodia

Last week, Cambodian and Chinese officials officially initiated the redevelopment of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. These Chinese-funded improvements have created concern that the port will be used as a Chinese military base, giving Beijing potentially greater control over the South China Sea.

The day before the ground-breaking ceremony, Australian foreign minister Penny Wong phoned her Cambodian counterpart, Prak Sokhonn, and raised the issue. Prak asserted that Cambodia’s constitution does not permit any foreign military presence on Cambodian soil and denied that the base would be used by China. But constitutionalism is not the strong suit of authoritarian regimes like Cambodia’s, and the legal barriers could be seen as a convenient smokescreen, rather than an impediment for China’s aims.

In addition to Beijing’s funding of the redevelopment, the deepening of the port to accommodate larger vessels also suggests it may be intended for Chinese use. Currently Cambodia’s navy, consisting mostly of patrol craft, does not have any ships that require deeper water. Having access to a facility that can host larger vessels in the western reaches of the South China Sea would consolidate China’s domination of the contested waters.

While Australia and the United States may be worried about China’s ambitions, the more direct impact of the base in Cambodia will be felt in ASEAN. Cambodia’s closeness to China has led to it repeatedly blocking ASEAN statements that are critical of Beijing. Many member states reject China’s claims in the South China Sea and would feel increasingly threatened by any enhancement of its maritime capabilities in the region. 

Marles in Singapore

On the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue ministerial conference in Singapore last week, Australia’s defence minister, Richard Marles, met with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe. It was the first meeting between ministers from the two countries since early 2020, when China began stonewalling the Australian government, refusing to arrange meetings and not accepting phone calls. However, Chinese premier Li Keqiang did send a letter of congratulations to new Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese. 

Although Beijing may have sensed an opportunity to re-engage with Canberra after the change in government, there is no indication that Labor will be more malleable to China’s desires. Regardless of which party is in power, Australia remains a stickler for the international rules and norms that Beijing believes constrain its rightful power. There is little room for the two countries to develop more amiable ties unless one of them abandons their approach to foreign affairs. 

At his meeting with Wei, Marles raised the issue of the dangerous interception of an Australian surveillance aircraft by a Chinese jet last month, and expressed concern that the Pacific Islands not be subjected to increased militarisation. Marles also highlighted the need for greater transparency around any large-scale military build-ups in the region, noting that this transparency was crucial for regional security.

However, Marles did indicate a shift in tone, signalling that the Australian government is keen to have greater communication with Beijing. This communication doesn’t necessarily need to be warm and friendly, but it is important that it is clear and frequent, to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to miscalculations or worse. 

India’s diplomatic storm

Since coming to power in 2014, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have managed to walk the tightrope of pursuing India’s interests abroad and engaging with those who see great opportunity in the country, while also pursuing its own ideological preoccupations. However, in recent weeks this balancing act has started to wobble, as the party’s national spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, and the head of its media unit in Delhi, Naveen Kumar Jindal, both made public remarks insulting the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad.

The result has been a diplomatic storm. Fifteen countries, mostly throughout the Middle East, but also importantly, Indonesia, have lodged official protests with their local Indian embassies, and several Indian ambassadors have been summoned to foreign ministries for a dressing-down. Previously, Muslim-majority countries have been reluctant to comment on the increasingly insecure environment for India’s Muslims. However, insulting the Prophet Muhammad is deemed an offence that transcends this norm.

For India the problem is stark. The country is heavily reliant on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the grouping of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – for its energy needs, and for the estimated $45 billion in remittances annually generated by the 10 million Indian workers in these countries. Cordial relations between India and the GCC are vital.

The episode has highlighted the difficulties Indian foreign policy faces due to its increasingly febrile domestic politics. Yet given the BJP’s obsession with Islam, and its prioritising of internal religious conflict over development and good governance, this international disturbance may not be a one-off.


A free extract from “Great Expectations” by Hugh White

“For half a century, Australian strategic policy has shifted uneasily between two poles: self-reliance in the defence of Australia, and the closest possible alignment with and dependence on the United States. But the Australian government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, released in July, marks an important change in direction. Both approaches are largely abandoned, and instead, Australia will seek its security principally as part of a coalition of Asian countries. The government plainly hopes that this coalition will be led by the United States, but that is not taken for granted. We no longer repose our trust in America alone, and if America fails us then we will look not to ourselves but to our Asian neighbours – as John Curtin might have put it, ‘free of any pangs’. This raises critical questions. Can Australia credibly depend on our Asian neighbours for our security? What are the alternatives?”CONTINUE READING


Weekly round-up

The big problem with Labor’s “Plan to Build a Stronger Pacific Family”

“In diplomatic dealings henceforth, Pacific Island countries should be treated less as ‘little brothers’ in Australia’s ‘Pacific family’ and more as rational bargainers. On this point, Labor’s promise for ‘better diplomacy’ should not veer into overemphasising gestures at the expense of substance.” Corey Lee Bell,the diplomat

Six cybersecurity challenges for Australia’s new government

“Government and social media platforms can’t continue passing the buck when our public discourse is covertly shaped or hijacked by actors overseas, or when citizens, organisations and diaspora communities are threatened and silenced by foreign governments. The new minister should prioritise this policy issue.” Justin Bassi, Fergus Hanson & Danielle Cave,the strategist (aspi)

Timor Leste, China and Australia, and the influence contest

“Australia offers Timor-Leste something China cannot give – strengthening its democratic values. By supporting the inclusion of diverse figures in the Timorese polity, this will also help the government in Timor-Leste better respond to needs for education, health, human rights, the effects of climate change and need for energy. That’s the best way to foster regional cooperation.” Andrea Fahey,The interpreter (lowy institute)


Tech and climate top priorities for growing Indonesian economic ties [$]

“If Canberra wants to expand trade and investment, then it needs to try new approaches. Decades of telling Australian businesses to take advantage of the Indonesia opportunity hasn’t worked. This will be a long-term endeavour that will require significant investment and patience.” Robert Law,Australian Financial Review

The costs of carving up Papua

“Despite visiting Papua more than any of his predecessors, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s policies in Papua have neglected Papuans’ demand for inclusion in policymaking. Instead of bulldozing its way to creating new provinces, Jakarta should engage in meaningful consultation with the Papuan people.” Deka Anwar,east asia forum

New from Quarterly essay

Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America

Hugh White

Is the US–Australia alliance now based on a fantasy?

In this gripping essay, Hugh White explores Australia’s fateful choice to back America to the hilt and oppose China. What led both sides of politics to align with America so absolutely? Is this a case of sleepwalking to war? What tests might a new government face?

White assesses America’s credibility and commitment, by examining AUKUS, the Quad, Trump and Biden. He discusses what the Ukraine conflict tells us about the future. And he argues that the US can neither contain China nor win a war over Taiwan. So where does this leave our future security and prosperity in Asia? Is there a better way to navigate the disruption caused by China’s rise?

This is a powerful and original essay by Australia’s leading strategic thinker. read more

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author – Hugh White in conversation

Thursday, 28 June


Hugh White in conversation with Paul Barclay

Wednesday, 29 June


Hugh White in conversation

Tuesday, 5 July


Writers @ Stanton – Hugh White

Stanton Library
Wednesday, 6 July



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