Jun 8, 2022
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New Chinese military base carries risks for Russia

Western media are sounding the alarm: China has quietly started building its second overseas military base, this time in Cambodia. This is rightly interpreted in the US as a challenge, the problem is that this is a challenge not only for the US. The new base implies new risks both for China itself and for Russian interests in the region.

China bought its first overseas naval base from a naval base supermarket in Djibouti. The French have four bases in this African state, the Americans have two, the Japanese and Italians have one each. There is also a limited German and Spanish military presence, and with an eye to the future, negotiations are underway with potential clients: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, even Russia.

A tiny, deserted, backward, corrupt country makes full use of its only but important advantage – geography. To the north of its coast is the Red Sea, through which from the Mediterranean they get to Suez, to the south – the Arabian, the entrance to the Indian Ocean. In terms of the movement of merchant and other ships, there are always traffic jams of 9 points. This is one of the most important arteries of humanity, vulnerable due to the proximity of Somalia with its pirates.

Therefore, the French gave Djibouti independence later than their other colonies, in the second half of the 1970s. Now they have to crowd there more and more, and given what is called “aggravation of the geopolitical situation in the world”, someday all this abundance will detonate. But so far, the experiment is working: Djibouti is the only place in the world where the American and Chinese military coexist relatively quietly.

Now, according to The Washington Post, construction has begun on a second Chinese military base outside China’s borders, in Cambodia. It is indicated that it is a “strategically important goal of China”, which considers this region “as a legitimate and historical sphere of influence”, which is believed in simply by definition.

The historical influence of the Chinese specifically on Cambodia can be considered decisive. So it was in hoary antiquity, so it was in the 20th century. Moreover, if communist China patronized the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, then the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan was their opponent Lon Nol (a man also cruel and unpleasant, but, of course, not as bloodthirsty as Pol Pot).

Even when the Khmer regime fell, Cambodia was in a fever for another ten years. She became the first among the purchases of the resurgent Celestial Empire – she was taken on the cheap, when it was terrible to look at the country. Beijing used the settlement of the Cambodian crisis to return to the big political arena in the same way that a united Germany used the disintegration of Yugoslavia. And then, by investing both in Cambodia as a whole and in its politicians, he “closed the deal”.

Comrade Chairman Xi Jinping can do whatever he wants in this country, not just a naval base. Which, however, does not negate the risk that it will detonate in this region much earlier than in Djibouti.

The expansion of China in the South China Sea, the confrontation between Beijing and Washington, the factor of Japan, South Korea, Australia – all this was, is and will be. But in this case, two additional circumstances must be taken into account, one of which indirectly affects Russia.

First, one should not assume that the attitude of the Cambodian elites towards China and the attitude of the Cambodians towards China are one and the same. Many Khmers, both simple and not very simple (in the sense of the intelligentsia class), have a complex attitude, and much is intertwined in this complexity.

For example, the perception of the Chinese as a colonialist people, multiplied by Khmer xenophobia. But the main thing is the CCP’s support for the Pol Pot regime, which, according to the boldest estimates, sent a third of its citizens to the next world in just four years.

By the way, the Khmer Rouge Americans also supported, including the supply of weapons in the 1980s – during the civil war. Of course, behind the scenes and even not free (for diamonds), but this is not a secret for Cambodians. And given that the opposition associates China with local and traditional authorities, it cannot be said that China’s consolidation in Cambodia is, as they say, “the end of history.” Perhaps only its beginning.

At the very least, it would be strange if the Americans did not take advantage of this circumstance and did not begin to “rock the Cambodian boat” for the sake of “the victory of democracy over the corrupt regime.” We have seen all this in Ukraine.

The second factor is Vietnam. An ally of Russia, but an enemy of both China and Cambodia, whose fates were most clearly intertwined under Pol Pot.

The attitude of the Khmer Rouge towards the Vietnamese, if translated into “European money”, is the attitude of the Germans towards the Jews in the first half of the 20th century. Considering themselves the ancestors of all the peoples of Indochina, the indigenous population of Cambodia saw the Vietnamese as “parasites”. The internationalism inherent in the communists did not affect Pol Pot in this sense, and his wife and comrade-in-arms Khieu Ponnari even developed schizophrenia (precisely in the medical sense) out of hatred for her neighbors.

As a goal for the near future, the leadership of Angka, the Khmer Rouge party, set the capture of Vietnam according to the formula “one to thirty”, where “one” is the Khmer soldier who died in battle, and “thirty” is the number of Vietnamese killed by him. And they went to this goal in such a way that they raided the territory of their neighbors, cutting out the local population to the root (for example, in the village of Batyuk, more than three thousand people were killed, two were saved).

Therefore, it was the Vietnamese troops who overthrew Pol Pot. The leader of the Communists of the North, Comrade Ho Chi Minh, then managed what few dare to do – a war on two fronts: South Vietnamese Saigon fell just two weeks after Cambodian Phnom Penh.

This strengthening of the traditional rival (even if in the status of a “communist comrade who fell under the harmful influence of the USSR”) did not please the Chinese – and they attacked Vietnam. The war lasted a month, after which Beijing announced its victory and withdrew its troops, but in reality it did not achieve its goals – with an approximately equal loss count, it could not weaken the Vietnamese army because of the government’s stake on the militia.

Like the civil war in Cambodia, Sino-Vietnamese border skirmishes flared up for another decade. Countries still have territorial claims to each other on land and at sea.

In the case of Cambodia, formally all claims are settled – but only formally. When a Cambodian street takes the floor, it easily spills over into anti-Vietnamese pogroms.

In other words, the provision of territory by the Khmers for a Chinese military base is perceived in Hanoi in much the same way that Moscow perceives the expansion of NATO and the construction of military infrastructure near its borders by the Atlanticists. In the Vietnamese case, this could accelerate a process that has been going on for several years – the process of political rapprochement with the United States.

Of course, it would be psychologically more comfortable for the Vietnamese leadership to rely on Russia, but under the current conditions, it can only count on neutrality. Russian diplomats are already doing the impossible so that the centuries-old Sino-Vietnamese enmity does not affect Moscow’s relations with both countries, perceived by it as allies.

But in the face of a tangle of Asian contradictions, Russian diplomats are not omnipotent.

A wake-up call: according to a study by the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, 46% of Vietnamese are sympathetic towards Russia. This is a lot – but it is too little when it comes to traditionally friendly Vietnam. Even in Pakistan, with which we have traditionally been at enmity, now they treat the Russian Federation a little better.

Vietnam’s growing fear of China and chronic distrust of Cambodia is a “window of opportunity” for American foreign policy that has now opened even more. In order for the Americans not to try to climb into this “window”, something extraordinary must happen. And that very “new geopolitical reality” is such that the extraordinary also happens in it, whether it is a military conflict between Russia and Ukraine or the historical reconciliation of Vietnam and the United States.

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