The construction of a Chinese naval base on the outskirts of Ream National Park in Cambodia is a stark symbol of the power struggle unfolding in Southeast Asia. The base, built on the site of a former U.S.-built military facility, represents China’s long-term commitment to the region. Vessels of the People’s Liberation Army have been present in the area for months, and China and Cambodia have conducted extensive joint military exercises from the nearby Sihanoukville Autonomous Port. These exercises, including the showcasing of China’s four-legged robots equipped with rifles, began in 2016, shortly after Cambodia cancelled joint exercises with the United States.

China’s relationship with Cambodia has strengthened significantly in recent years. Details of the Ream naval base, funded by Chinese aid, were revealed in 2019. This year, Chinese-owned companies are set to commence work on the Funan Techo canal, a 112-mile, $1.7 billion project connecting the Cambodian capital to the Gulf of Thailand. Once completed, the canal could divert traffic from the Mekong River and establish a trade route for China, through Laos and Cambodia, that bypasses Vietnam, which is increasingly pro-Western. China and Cambodia have a “build-operate-transfer” financing agreement, which will see the canal remain under Chinese control for at least 50 years.

This control serves a larger strategic purpose for China. Cambodia, under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Manet, is now considered an “ironclad ally” heavily reliant on Chinese investment. Approximately 80% of Cambodia’s $10 billion foreign debt is owed to China, giving Chinese President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party (CCP) considerable influence.

Cambodia China

The U.S. and Vietnam have recently strengthened their relationship in an effort to counter China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia. Just last month, a U.S. warship was expelled from the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea by the Chinese military after allegedly entering Chinese territory. Meanwhile, the Philippines, another U.S. ally, is engaged in a fierce diplomatic dispute with China over contested territory in the region, resulting in the ramming and water-cannoning of Philippine ships. Despite an international tribunal ruling against China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, China has continued to occupy and build new islands, maintaining a military presence across the region.

Cambodia’s role in China’s power play within the Indo-Pacific is significant. The autocratic Manet regime is a crucial ally for China. The Chinese Foreign Minister was the first foreign official to congratulate and meet with Manet following his inauguration as Prime Minister in 2023. There is a growing overlap in the tactics and technology employed by both countries, including surveillance tools like CCTV, censorship software, and internet “firewall” technologies, used to monitor and suppress regime critics, trade unionists, and activists. Independent news outlets have been shut down, and journalists, in particular, have been targeted for harassment, with many forced into exile.

Unfortunately, the U.S. response has been muted. During a visit to Cambodia this month, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin stated that his goal was to “sit down and talk about how [we] might have a more positive and optimistic path in the future.” The visit was “not about securing significant deliverables and achievements,” suggesting a misunderstanding of the situation in Southeast Asia. While the Biden Administration seems to perceive Cambodia as a cooperative partner, Manet is playing both Beijing and Washington.


This is evident in Cambodia’s repeated attempts to engage with U.S. officials regarding the Washington-backed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) while simultaneously courting investment from China, which remains its largest direct investor.

For those in Washington concerned about the rise of China and the threats to Western democracy in Southeast Asia and globally, a reset is needed in relationships with countries like Cambodia. The current approach of offering rewards without any consequences risks further democratic decline in Cambodia and the expansion of Chinese influence. 

Last year, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers called for stronger action against the Manet regime, threatening targeted sanctions against key figures responsible for suppressing democratic institutions, political freedoms, and human rights in Cambodia. Their proposal also advocated for a more defined set of U.S. policies towards Cambodia. While this congressional effort ultimately failed to gain sufficient support, it exemplifies the type of approach needed to give teeth to U.S. efforts to counter China’s influence in the region.

This is a crucial moment for both the U.S. and Southeast Asia. A soft approach towards repressive leaders like Manet risks normalizing their continued assault on the freedoms and liberties of citizens in the region. It also raises questions about U.S. lawmakers who speak out against China’s expanding influence while failing to adequately protect the democratic values they, and the citizens of Southeast Asia, hold dear.