Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to China last week came amid speculation that Beijing is seeking to build a naval base off the Cambodian coast, claims the Prime Minister has denied. In a letter delivered by US Vice President Mike Pence to Hun Sen last November, Pence raised concerns over the possibility of a Chinese naval base in the Southeast Asian country.
It had been reported that an alleged Chinese military base was part of a Chinese invested $3.8 billion tourism complex in Cambodia’s Koh Kong Province. Hun Sen quickly dismissed such concerns and said, “Cambodia will not permit any foreign military base for a navy, army or air force.”
Besides Cambodia, the US also harbour misconceptions over Chinese-invested ports in other foreign nations. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, operated by China Merchants Port Holdings, is another focus of Pence’s concern. Last October, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pushed back against Pence’s warnings of a Chinese military presence at the port, emphasising that it was a commercial joint venture between Sri Lanka’s port authority and the Chinese firm.
In the South Pacific region, after a Chinese company built a wharf at Luganville in Vanuatu, the US and its ally Australia suspected that China was aiming to turn the wharf into a naval base. Vanuatu and China both rejected the allegation.
During US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s recent Israel visit, concerns were raised with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Chinese technology in the country along with direct investment from China, in particular over Haifa Port. The Shanghai International Port Group has won the bid for the concession of Bayport Terminal at the Port of Haifa, for 25 years. The US is worried China will be able to spy on its naval vessels which regularly visit the port.
How to alleviate Washington’s concerns over Beijing-driven economic projects with foreign nations is a new challenge facing China-US relations. The US has regarded China as a strategic competitor so the anxieties over China’s activities are natural. However, as it has already been revealed on multiple occasions, Washington is overreacting.
Disrupting China’s cooperation with relevant countries will not enhance US strategic influence, and Washington should refrain from making groundless accusations over Belt and Road initiative-related projects.
“America First” means the Trump administration doesn’t want US companies to invest in other countries. In fact, considering the high political and security risks, US businesses have little interest in working with those developing countries. Be it Cambodia or Vanuatu, these countries are in dire need of foreign investment to boost local employment. Even technology industry of a developed economy like Israel needs support from Chinese investment.
A competitive marketplace provides better products and service. Instead of squeezing Chinese investment on a global scale, the US should try to make itself more competitive. That Chinese companies have won deals in building ports in foreign countries is due to the high quality of their infrastructure development.
US companies have the upper hand in financing, consulting, management and other “soft infrastructure” fields. As a matter of fact, there is vast potential for Chinese and US companies to cooperate with third-party countries.
In this way, not only would relevant countries not have to choose between the two powers, it will also prevent China and the US entering into a new Cold War.