Like the days of the Cold War, an increasingly stark divide is emerging in international politics – one which sees Australia in ideological opposition to the world's newest superpower.
China's rise has seen the country of 1.4 billion extend its influence and presence around the world as its aggressive diplomacy often causes smaller nations to pick sides.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison heads overseas this week on a whirlwind trip to meet with foreign leaders at the G7 summit. He is expected to rally Western allies and international institutions to stand in unison against the growing threat of China.
But the Asian giant's growing influence shows little sign of slowing.
Satellite images showing two new buildings rapidly constructed at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base are the latest development to prompt concerns about China's expanding military presence.
The aerial photos taken by Maxar Technologies and published last month by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative show the buildings being built in about a two-week period in May.
They are situated a stone's throw from the former site of US-funded tactical facilities that were demolished by the Cambodian government last year. The US backed facilities were equipped by Australia, according to a speech delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh at the facility's 2012 opening.
Cambodian officials have sought to downplay fears it is shirking the West and giving China a "foothold" to access the South China Sea from the Gulf of Thailand. But experts say it shows China's growing grip on Australia's region.
"The breakneck pace of construction at Ream, lack of transparency, and shifting explanations from Cambodian officials continue to fuel suspicions that the upgrades there are intended for China’s benefit as much as Cambodia’s," the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said in a blog post.
The agreement giving the Chinese long-term control over part of Cambodia’s Ream naval base was leaked in 2019, with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute warning at the time the secret agreement confirmed "the broadly held view that Cambodia has slipped further into Beijing’s strategic orbit."
According to AMTI, the new buildings at the naval base are a part of broader expansions which will reportedly include a newly dredged port and a ship repair facility.
China strengthens grip on Cambodia with vaccine diplomacy
Cambodia has been one of the biggest recipients of China's so-called vaccine diplomacy, bringing the country further into the fold of the rising superpower.
Cambodia kickstarted inoculations with a bigger donation of vaccines from China than any other country in the region — in addition to Chinese vaccines it had already bought itself, Reuters reported Tuesday.
"The question is asked whether Cambodia is too dependent on China," authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a recent speech. "If I don't rely on China, whom should I rely on? Without the donations and sales of vaccines from China, we would not have vaccinated the Cambodian people."
Some 16 per cent of Cambodia's 16 million people have had at least one vaccine dose, according to official numbers.
That's well ahead of other countries in the region. Malaysia and Indonesia have only managed 7.6 per cent and 6.6 per cent respectively, with Thailand on 4.6 per cent and the Philippines 4.2 per cent. In Vietnam, where anti-China feeling runs strong, little more than 1 per cent are vaccinated, largely due to a refusal to accept China's vaccines.
In response, the United States announced its first major vaccine donations to Asia last week.
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