With Chinese warships anchoring in Cambodia, the US needs to respond

With Chinese warships anchoring in Cambodia, the US needs to respond

The recent mooring of Chinese warships at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base marked the unofficial inauguration of China’s first overseas naval post in the Indo-Pacific region and only its second overall. These latest deployments, which demand a robust American government response, signal how China plans to leverage its expanding global military footprint to thwart U.S. forces from intervening in a Taiwan crisis.

For years, Chinese and Cambodian officials insisted that refurbishments at Ream Naval Base — a deep-water facility located along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand — were never intended to accommodate Chinese military vessels. But those denials evaporated when Chinese corvettes docked at Ream Naval Base, which now boasts a near-replica of the 363-meter-long pier installed at China’s only other overseas naval base in Djibouti.

Both piers are large enough to berth any ship in China’s fast-growing naval force, including its new, approximately 300-meter-long Type 003 Fujian aircraft carrier, which will undergo sea trials this year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy’s fleet is almost half the size it was 40 years ago.

Yet, Ream Naval Base and Djibouti represent only two nodes in Beijing’s broader overseas basing strategy. Earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community warned Congress that China is pursuing other naval bases and expanded military access in Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Pakistan, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates. Gaining a foothold in any of these locations, many of which are situated near sensitive U.S. military sites, would provide China’s People’s Liberation Army with a vantage point to monitor and control vital maritime routes.

In Cambodia’s case, that includes the Strait of Malacca, through which 30% of the world’s trade flows.

While China remains intent on rivaling U.S. dominance, Beijing is not seeking to mirror America’s expansive and expensive global military presence. Instead, China’s aim is to neutralize the American network’s effectiveness.

More specifically, China’s little-understood forward edge defense doctrine centers around deploying military assets abroad where China’s adversaries — principally the U.S. — are strongest, such as the Middle East. In certain cases, China is eyeing new naval outposts adjacent to brick-and-mortar U.S. bases; elsewhere, its focused on establishing a presence near maritime choke points frequented by American military vessels.

By pre-positioning its military in this manner, Chinese strategists assess Beijing stands a reasonable chance of striking American military facilities and other high-value targets — and even during a war over Taiwan — thereby complicating Washington’s ability to dispatch these and other forces to China’s periphery.

Similarly, in projecting power from farther flung locales, such as West Africa, China could gravely complicate Washington’s ability to rapidly deploy U.S. military assets stationed along America’s Eastern Seaboard to the fight in Asia.

So far, Cambodia has incurred no costs whatsoever for its decision to host Chinese forces. In other instances, diplomatic interventions designed to counter China’s basing strategy have fallen short. For example, U.S. warnings to the United Arab Emirates in 2021 led to a brief halt in China’s covert base building there, yet construction quietly resumed two years later. The White House dispatched a different high-level delegation to Equatorial Guinea, also in 2021, only to discover later that nearby Gabon had already agreed to host Chinese forces on its soil.

It’s past time for Washington to jettison its ad hoc, absent-minded approach toward Beijing’s basing pursuits. Through enhanced oversight and better coordination, Congress can and should lead the way to ensure policies are in place to anticipate and thwart China’s moves in countries where the U.S. government assesses Beijing is seeking new or expanded military access agreements.

For starters, the Defense Department should immediately appoint a senior official to synchronize internal strategy and resourcing on this matter. The White House should similarly appointment someone to lead the interagency’s response and planning. At present, no single official or office within the Defense Department or White House has that responsibility.

Beyond routine oversight, lawmakers should consider ordering a comprehensive assessment from the Defense Department to scrutinize how new Chinese military installations might shift the global power balance and complicate U.S. force posture in key regions. Such an assessment could also spur Congress to consider granting new or expanded authorities to executive branch agencies and the intelligence community to counter China’s military moves, just as it did during the Cold War to thwart the Soviet Union’s push for overseas basing primacy.

Last, Congress should also dispatch delegations to countries with current or potential Chinese basing sites, not only to reinforce diplomatic ties but to offer tangible support that could dissuade them from hosting a Chinese military facility.

Barring swift U.S. action, the Chinese warships now anchored in Cambodia may soon set course for new Chinese outposts. Should such deployments unfold, it could mark a strategic encirclement that leaves Taiwan — and U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific — vulnerable.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., is the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Craig Singleton, a former U.S. diplomat, is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank and lobbyist organization.

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