15 June 2022
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.