China: strategic ambitions beyond the new Silk Roads?

After installing a military base in Djibouti in 2017, China seems to want to increase its presence beyond the China Sea and outside the strategic so-called silk trade routes. According to the Wall Street Journal [efn_note]The Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2019: “ Deal for Naval Outpost in Cambodia Furthers China's Quest for Military Network »[/efn_note], a secret agreement between China and Cambodia would allow Beijing to take control of the Ream naval base and station warships there for the next 30 years. However, Cambodia does not present, within the framework of the new Silk Roads, any strategic interest.

The new Silk Roads are structured around six corridors, one of which penetrates the Indochinese peninsula. As such, the Kunming-Singapore axis provides access to the Indian Ocean by land. This is a major advantage because it allows goods to be transported while avoiding the unstable and highly contested South China Sea. This axis is located to the west of Cambodian territory without ever penetrating it. 

And the port of Sihanoukville, for its part, is not of interest for the new Silk Roads. Commercial ships and oil tankers can naturally cross the Strait of Malacca without needing to coast near the Cambodian coast or transit through one of its ports.

Mapcambodia Defense News | Cambodia | Deployment of forces - Reinsurance

The Cambodian constitution[efn_note]Article 53 of the constitution: “The Kingdom of Cambodia does not allow the installation of foreign military bases on its territory”[/efn_note] prohibiting the installation of foreign forces on its soil, its government has denied these assertions. However, the Cambodian economy under Chinese perfusion would not have the means to refuse such a request: according to a report from the World Bank[efn_note]World Bank Group, May 2019: “ Cambodia Economic Update »[/efn_note] capital inflows in the form of foreign direct investments come largely from China. And, the country whose economy depends, among other things, on tourism, mainly welcomes Chinese.

Despite the recent publication of the Chinese defense white paper[efn_note]Tenth white paper, 2019: “ China's national defense in the new era »[/efn_note] which recalls that China “will never seek hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence”, one may therefore wonder why China would project its navy into an area that does not pass through a strategic commercial axis?

Its presence in the Gulf of Thailand would allow it to be stronger within the framework of its hegemonic plans in the South China Sea, to better secure its fishing resources or even allow Chinese companies to exploit the hydrocarbons present in the region. It would also constitute another front line in the event of conflict with Vietnam.

WeiFengheNgoXuanLich Defense News | Cambodia | Deployment of forces - Reinsurance
General Wei Fenghe (left) and his Vietnamese counterpart General Ngo Xuan Lich discuss issues in the South China Sea in Hanoi in May

Note that the 2019 Chinese defense white paper places more emphasis on the defense of Chinese interests abroad than that of 2015. And, although it is a question of international cooperation and multilateralism, the report mentions that "for fill the gaps in overseas operations and support, China is developing overseas logistics facilities.”

The formula is used in the plural: the presence in Djibouti would therefore only be the first pawn of a larger projection plan, sometimes even outside of a logic of protection of trade routes. Certainly, China will project its ever more powerful military navy by relying on the pearl necklace strategy[efn_note]The pearl necklace strategy (in English : String of Pearls) is an expression designating the installation by the chinese navy of support points (“pearls”) along its main maritime supply routes[/efn_note] and sometimes even beyond, as the Cambodian case illustrates.

David Furcajg – Specialist in the new Silk Roads, and China’s geostrategic influence

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