Biden can lead multilateral response to China’s military expansion

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (3rd L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (2nd L) review the guards of honour during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 18, 2011. REUTERS/How Hwee Young/Pool

At the top of the foreign policy agenda for US president-elect, Joe Biden will be dealing with Chinese military expansionism, which threatens stability in south-east Asia and beyond.

The cross-party consensus in the US on the need for a hard line on China is grounds for hope. So too are the signals from Biden on re-embracing international multilateralism through, for example, the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The United States does not need to tackle China alone. The need to set limits on China’s expansionism is a strategic interest shared by the Association of Southeast Asian nations, as well as democratic countries everywhere.  A mechanism for mobilising these diverse interests exists in the form of the Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia, the first major multilateral peace accord after the end of the Cold War, signed by 18 countries in 1991.

The agreements laid down a policy of strict neutrality for Cambodia, which has clearly been violated. Reconvening the signatories, China included, to review the implementation of the agreement would be an appropriate way to present a united international front and devise a multilateral strategy. 

Image source: Reuters

Weaponizing China’s BRI

The claim that Chinese-built port infrastructure in countries such as Cambodia was designed for commercial purposes has been dismissed by experts such as Daniel R. Russel and Blake H. Berger. In “Weaponizing the Belt and Road Initiative” published by the Asia Society Policy Institute in September, they point out that Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, a flagship Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, is virtually ignored by commercial traffic despite years of investment.

The research argues that the Gwadar Port in Pakistan has failed to attract sufficient shipping to make it commercially viable. Under the BRI, construction of infrastructure such as ports must conform to standards set down by the Chinese army. That makes it easy to switch to military use of infrastructure covertly and at a moment’s notice.

An aggressive China preys on the weakest governments it can find to further its interests. Cambodia, which has stagnated in corruption and state-sponsored violence for decades under Prime Minister Hun Sen, fits the bill perfectly. The Chinese-built airport in Dara Sakor and the deep-water port in Koh Kong province “bear many hallmarks of military utility”, the research argues. The Dara Sakor airport has a two-mile-long runway, far longer than needed for civilian cargo planes, while the design of the Koh Kong port allows it to host Chinese destroyers.

The danger, write Russel and Berger, is that this infrastructure could be combined with existing Chinese facilities in the Spratly and Paracel islands to create “a military perimeter around the South China Sea.”

China’s military activities in Cambodia have been steadily increasing. Since 2016, the number of personnel employed in the annual “Golden Dragon” military exercise with Cambodia has grown from a few hundred to 3,000 this year – this despite the COVID-19 pandemic. These should be seen in the context of regular military exercises with Pakistan, complemented more recently by joint exercises with Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

A model of the Blue Bay, a Chinese resort under construction in Sihanoukville. (Anna Fifield/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

China is the largest arms supplier to Cambodia as well as Sri Lanka. Further alarm was triggered in September, when Cambodia demolished a building that the US had built at Ream Naval Base. A second US-funded building was demolished at Ream in October.

There is nothing inevitable or unstoppable about Chinese expansionism. The US is already responding. US Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite this month called for the establishment of a new fleet at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This would reduce the pressure on the Seventh Fleet, which operates out of Japan and covers the ocean all the way to the India-Pakistan border.

In Cambodia, the US has already imposed Magnitsky sanctions on the Chinese company UGC, which is developing the Dara Sakor “tourism zone” and which is reported to be involved in the Ream military development near Sihanoukville. Further Magnitsky sanctions are needed, but in themselves will not be enough. Multilateral action is the key to achieving security in the region. The free world will look to the US under Joe Biden to lead that process.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Rainsy Sam

Sam Rainsy is a Former Finance Minister of Cambodia. He is co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and lives in exile in France. He can be reached via his Facebook page:

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