China’s naval base on Thailand’s doorstep. Tensions in Southeast Asia are rising. Thailand emphasises its unaligned status within the ASEAN bloc. Despite this, Chinese assertiveness and military expansion is growing. So too is the risk of hostilities or conflict which could be triggered by accident as tensions spiral out of control.

Thailand faces difficult choices in the years or even months ahead and possible danger.  This relates to growing signs of Chinese aggression and military expansion in Southeast Asia. Right now, the concern is the near certainty that China has established a naval base off the Gulf of Thailand. This is at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Simultaneously, Beijing is exercising increasing sway over Thailand’s neighbours, Laos and Myanmar. Thailand’s northern neighbour, China, is also in conflict with the Philippines over the South China Sea. In addition, there are escalating tensions with the United States and its allies.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on a 3-day visit to Phnom Penh at the end of April, where he met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet. However, the visit was overshadowed by speculation that Cambodia has allowed China to develop an expanding standalone naval facility within Ream Naval Base in the Gulf of Thailand near Sihanoukville. Two Chinese corvettes of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy have been stationed there since December 2023 at special Chinese-built piers. It comes with the Southeast Asian security situation becoming ever more dangerous.

With tension in the South China Sea heating up, there is growing concern about the increasing influence of China in Cambodia. In addition, there are questions to be asked about China’s activities in Myanmar and Laos, all countries on Thailand’s border.

Furthermore, Beijing appears not only to have become more assertive over disputed territories but is simultaneously expanding its military capabilities at a quick pace.

In short, it is building potential foreign bases between Asia and Africa. This includes the communist country’s growing influence in Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

Belt and Road initiative is a trojan horse for Chinese expansionism including stronger security and military ties with Beijing. Thailand has been coy

Promoted by Beijing as its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, it invariably comes with closer security and military links. This classification of the initiative as a ‘trojan horse’ for Chinese designs has long been adopted by US intelligence.

All these countries have been earmarked for Chinese naval bases in conjunction with existing initiatives. In 2017, Thailand was also targeted by Chinese officials who even proposed an armaments base in the kingdom. This was to be established in Khon Kaen.

It was announced by the Defence Technology Institute. In short, it was linked to Thailand’s purchase of military hardware from China including tanks. This was a response to downgraded US-Thai ties after the 2014 coup d’état.

However, this was later sidelined by the government of General Prayut Chan Ocha. It came as Thailand mended bridges with the United States.

The Thai government has been similarly coy in taking up ambitious Chinese-backed initiatives.

China’s third naval carrier has taken to sea this week. It comes with signs that China is building a chain of bases and lookout posts in the Indo-Pacific

The same year, 2017, saw the establishment of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti. The 90-acre base can accommodate up to 2,000 troops and has facilities for aircraft carriers.

In recent days, China’s third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, took to sea.

Closer to home, there are concerns about the presence of a Chinese listening post in Myanmar. At length, it is purportedly operated by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, on Great Coco Island.

In truth, the claims have been labelled as fake news in the past. 

China’s Navy sails into Ream Naval Base in Cambodia with Thailand’s neighbour now seen as a proxy for Beijing

However, large-scale development on the island commenced in 2022, and the presence of Chinese engineers has prompted a reassessment.

In addition, the reports come at a time when the junta government in Nay Pyi Taw has been hard-pressed for resources.

The island lies less than 55 kilometres from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are owned by India. Indeed, they are strategically important to India’s military posture.

Chatham House report in 2023 strongly pointed to Chinese involvement with Burma’s military forces on Grand Coco, home to an intelligence listening post

The proximity of Grand Coco Island to India and its naval forces has been noted. Many analysts now believe that China is in de facto control of military facilities on the island.

A 2023 Chatham House report noted China’s growing influence and control over the junta regime. In addition to its Belt and Road investment in Myanmar, there was existing evidence of Chinese development on Grand Coco.

An extended air force base has also been constructed on the island.

Meanwhile, it is now widely believed that a 2019 US intelligence report suggesting China was establishing a naval facility at Ream Naval Base in the Gulf of Thailand is true.

The continued presence of two Chinese corvettes at newly constructed piers has been confirmed by US agencies.

These include the US Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI). This is an offshoot of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an intelligence think tank in Washington DC.

Arrival and long-term presence of two Chinese corvettes at newly built docking piers at Ream Naval Base in Cambodia confirms a 2019 US intelligence report

In short, the two vessels arrived at Ream in December 2023 for training.

However, except for a handful of days, they have not left. They are berthed at newly completed piers at the base. These were built with Chinese funding.

Indeed, intelligence suggests a rapid building project in the area being used by the Chinese at Ream. This includes marine repair facilities, walls and watchtowers. Additionally, there are facilities for personnel including barracks with basketball courts.

On Monday, China confirmed that Chinese and Cambodian naval forces will stage exercises off Sihanoukville. From mid-May, the Golden Dragon 2024 exercises are expected to see the involvement of the docked vessels.

At length, in a statement, authorities in Beijing described the ‘Golden Dragon 2024’ exercise as demonstrating the ‘ironclad’ friendship between the two countries.

It spoke of the two countries working towards maintaining peace and stability in the region. It will be the sixth such training exercise.

Significant visit by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cambodia in April heard the top envoy talk  of a ‘China-Cambodia community with a shared future’

It follows a significant visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cambodia at the end of April. That meeting spoke of forging a ‘China-Cambodia community with a shared future.’

Undoubtedly, it confirmed that Cambodia has firmly become a Chinese proxy in Southeast Asia.

The fear is that the junta in Myanmar, weakened by civil war, is now dominated by China. At the same time, Laos, a country plagued by a growing public debt, means China increasingly holds sway there. In short, China is increasingly exercising power on Thailand’s borders.

Certainly, the proximity of Ream Naval Base to Thailand on the gulf must be significant. Undoubtedly,  it is something the kingdom’s security planners will be looking at.

Cambodian PM Hun Manet endorsed Beijing’s line on Taiwan, Hong Kong and even the situation in Xinjiang where there are allegations of abuse against Uighurs 

Certainly, during Wang Yi’s visit, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet strongly endorsed Beijing’s position on key international issues.

These include China’s position regarding the government of Taiwan and Hong Kong. Cambodia also stood with China despite the growing international outrage over Xinjiang.

In Xinjiang, China is accused of human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority population. Indeed, some analysts see the systemic abuses in the Chinese province as genocide.

Significantly, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Chenda Sophea Sok, told his counterpart that Phnom Penh was with China. In brief, it stood firmly against ‘troublemaking in the region by extraterritorial forces’.

It comes with Cambodia’s relationship with the United States being increasingly fraught and controversial.

The United States takes issue with Cambodia over its appalling track record on suppression of democratic rights and human trafficking. 

Aggressive response from Cambodian government mouthpieces to the revelations of a Chinese naval base

Press coverage in Phnom Penh followed the same pro-China line. The Foreign Ministry there accused the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of ‘hyping up maritime issues’ to smear China. This came in response to questions posed by Bloomberg News.

At the same time, a journalist writing for the government mouthpiece The Khmer News, Mr Chhan Paul, described the reports about Ream Naval Base as a ‘deliberate attempt to malign Cambodia.’

However, with the growing weight of evidence confirming the 2019 US intelligence report, it is no longer credible to pretend anything otherwise. 

Previously, Cambodian authorities have pointed out that any such military base would breach Cambodia’s constitution. Nevertheless, that is what is currently happening in Ream, off Sihanoukville, to any independent-minded observer.

In particular, Cambodia’s government is ignoring and thumbing its nose at the country’s own constitution. This is being done to further its relationship with China.

Thai analyst supports the view that China is building a network of military outposts in the Southeast Asian region in line when its more assertive role

Paul Chambers is a reputed political scientist at Naresuan University in Phitsanulok in lower northern Thailand.

He concurs that Beijing has established a ‘semi-permanent’ base on the Gulf of Thailand.

Furthermore, he sees it as part of a wider Chinese plan to boost its naval capability. Mr Chambers was speaking with Radio Free Asia.

‘What appears to be evident is that Beijing has begun to station semi-permanent warships there as a means of solidifying its military footprint across Southeast Asia,’ he observed. ‘A Chinese foothold in Cambodia offers support to other nearby Chinese military platforms in the South China Sea, Myanmar, Laos, and southern Asia.’

In addition, there is also rising consternation about a proposed 180 km canal being financed by China.

The $1.7 billion Funan Techno Canal would connect Phnom Penh with Kep on the Gulf of Thailand. Therefore, Chinese vessels would have access to the Cambodian interior as well as the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.

More strident Chinese tone has the region on edge

The more strident tone from China in relation to the South China Sea and its growing network of military capabilities might be a source of concern to Southeast Asian countries, particularly Thailand.

Previously the peninsula that Thailand lies on was known as Indochina.

As in the past, the region finds itself pulled between the power of the West, China, and India.

Nevertheless, in the short term, China’s ambitions towards Taiwan and its aggressive posture towards the South China Sea stand out.

Both are very dangerous and pose threats to the peace and stability of the region. Beijing, in 2016, flatly rejected an international tribunal ruling in The Hague on the South China Sea.

In effect, China simply claims the extended sea for itself.

China’s clashes with the Philippines off the Scarborough Shoal on the South China Sea could develop into a dangerous flashpoint for geopolitical conflict

In recent weeks, there have been disturbing clashes between the Philippines Coast Guard and its mightier Chinese counterpart near the Scarborough Shoal. Tensions in the area have flared for over a decade.

The Philippines just issued a statement suggesting it would not use high-power water hoses in response to Chinese aggression.

Undoubtedly, this is a tacit admission of the danger of the situation escalating out of hand.

Last week, China unveiled a verbal agreement with former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

In short, it appears that the anti-American Duterte, who was often criticised by Washington for the wholesale murder of drug users during his presidency, had indeed reached an understanding with China’s President Xi Jinping.

Nonetheless, the current Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has adopted a pro-America stance.

Over the weekend, he rejected the verbal agreement. He announced that any such agreement was now and henceforth repudiated.

United States lays down a marker on its alliance with the Philippines in its standoff with China’s navy

Previously, Marcos has handed over more military bases to bolster US military capabilities in relation to Taiwan.

The latest tensions have led the United States to warn Beijing that any attack on the Philippines will be treated as an act of war. The Philippines is America’s oldest military ally in the region.

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At an ASEAN-Japanese summit in Tokyo in December, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin was clear about the danger of military conflict. The PM was especially concerned about tensions over the South China Sea and Taiwan. 

Nevertheless, his government consistently underlines Thailand’s unaligned status.

The kingdom wishes to be on friendly terms with all countries. Central to Thailand’s position is its role as a member of the 10-nation Asean Community.

Real risk of war breaking out in the South China Sea or over Taiwan. China’s economy has already been placed on a war footing despite market downturns

Indeed, his primary concern was for Thai workers on the island. Taiwan claims to be a sovereign state, indeed the Republic of China. Meanwhile, Beijing sees it as a renegade province.

Unquestionably, the threat and risk of war in Asia are growing.

Former US intelligence sources even highlighted this year before the US Presidential elections as a time of danger. 

Last year, US four-star general Mike Minihan predicted it would be 2025.

Seasoned analysts note that Chinese President Xi Jinping has told his military to be ready for war in 2027.

Significantly, President Xi has ordered the economy into war mode as the country’s rearmament plans proceed apace. 

China is now an economy driven by war and not market forces. This comes despite the country’s ailing economy, particularly its housing and banking crisis.

In effect, this has been caused by a lack of confidence in the Chinese government since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

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China’s Navy sails into Ream Naval Base in Cambodia with Thailand’s neighbour now seen as a proxy for Beijing

Move Forward opposes any plan to allow a US base in Thailand and commits to uphold its sovereignty

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