On December 10th, over 60 participants convened online to discuss the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military presence in mainland Southeast Asia, and the impact it has brought to the region in a panel session hosted by YCAPS, JUMP and ICAS. The event was moderated by John Bradford, Executive Director of YCAPS, and joined by three distinguished speakers: Dr. Cheunboran Chanborey, Program Director and a member of the Board of Directors of the Asian Vision Institute in Cambodia; Mr. Drake Long, former South China Sea Correspondent for RadioFreeAsia and 2020 Asia-Pacific Fellow for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy; and Emeritus Professor Carlyle Thayer from The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Mr. Long, whose reporting inspired this event, kicked off the discussion by analyzing the PRC’s potential motivations for building a military facility in the Southeast Asian region. He explained the Chinese concept of "near seas defense" and outlined the general perspectives of Southeast Asian states regarding Chinese military presence. Mr. Long was followed by Dr. Chanborey, who dove deeper into the joint operations on the Mekong River and how the Mekong is becoming a central point for international cooperation and security competition in Asia. He also shared Cambodian perspective on China’s increasing influence in the region and emphasized on the principle of neutrality and non-alignment as enshrined in Cambodia’s Constitution. Professor Thayer expanded the scope of discussion from Cambodia to other countries in the Mekong region, touching on the various cooperative security arrangements that include the joint Mekong patrols, border strengthening operations, joint search and rescue, and counterterrorism operations. He suggested China would be more likely to build a semi-permanent access point in the region rather than a full-scale military base with war fighting capabilities.
During the discussion period, audience questions touched on topics that included the issue cross-border law enforcement on the Mekong River, Cambodia’s potential agenda as chair of ASEAN in 2022, and the impact of extra-regional military presence in the region. The discussion reflected the diversity and complexity of the geopolitics on mainland Southeast Asia with PRC’s military presence and how the region will continue to play a crucial role on the global stage in the foreseeable future.
ーBy Alex Chou from Waseda University