Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cambodian Security and American Oil Interests by Saigon Charlie

Cambodian Security and
American Oil Interests
by Saigon Charlie

November 2004

Although only recently coming out of the ultra Maoist era of the Khmer Rouge and the legacy of the killing fields, a growing body of evidence is suggesting that the U.S. will soon permanently deploy large scale military forces to the port town of Sihanoukville in the Kingdom of Cambodia in southeast Asia.

Reasons leading to such a deployment include the growing necessity to downscale and reposition the US Asian military footprint in Japan and more specifically, the US Marines in Okinawa. Additionally, with terrorism being the ever present watchword, it has become apparent that a looming requirement is building in which the shipping lanes and oil producing facilities along the eastern seaboard of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam’s South China Sea must be better secured; all potential targets in a world where such facilities and shipping lanes have been and continue to be struck by terrorist elements around the world.

It was nearly 30 years ago that the last battle of the Vietnam War was fought and it began only a week after the fall of Saigon in an international shipping lane 60 miles off the Cambodian coast and 8 miles off the island of Poulo Wai (Kao Wai), an island then claimed by Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The date was May 12, 1975 when Khmer Rouge forces (using former US Navy PCF Swift gunboats, similar to ones recently made famous by Senator John Kerry) stopped and seized the US flagged cargo ship, the S.S. Mayaguez, while making a cargo run from Hong Kong to Sattahip, Thailand.

The political climate was ripe at the time for retribution and with a new and unproven president at the helm in the White House by the name of Gerald Ford (who had become president after the impending impeachment and subsequent resignation of President Nixon on August 9, 1974), action had to be taken. Then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger presented a powerful argument that "greater issues were at stake than international piracy...and the seizure of the Mayaguez raised questions of international perceptions of American power and will."

Marines wearing gas masks board the SS MayaguezMarines wearing gas masks board the SS Mayaguez

A quickly devised plan was set in motion for what turned out to be a disastrous military operation to retake the ship, eventually leading to the deaths of 38 US military personnel along with 50 additional casualties, including the bombings of the airfield at Sihanoukville and the oil storage and naval facilities at Ream Naval Base. This however is all ancient history now and these events, to most, have been long forgotten.

However, very recent political changes within the Kingdom, including the abdication of the anti-American Vietnam War era king Sihanouk and the appointment and coronation of a new and the more neutral ballet dancer trained King Norodom Sihamoni, have opened the door for Cambodia to join a different world than the one it has belonged to.

Additionally, for the past year and half Cambodia has been unable to function as no legitimate government or coalition has been in place. It has only been in the past couple of months that Prime Minister Hun Sen has consolidated his power, bringing legitimacy and legality to a functioning coalition government. Obviously, this was a prerequisite for any foreign aid agreements, loans or international treaties that might be under consideration.

Although appearing coincidental within weeks after all these events came together, the Bangkok Post on October 26 screamed the headline “Cambodia may be next 'terror haven'” while construction was moving forward in Phnom Penh for one of the largest and most secure US Embassies in the world. With over 180,000 square feet (or comparable in size to 90, 2 story, 3-bedroom homes in a typical American suburb), this $40,000,000 monster dwarfs anything around its location of Wat Phnom and will probably be one of the most secure and largest embassies in the world.

Royal Cambodian Navy boats by Saigon Charlie

The Cambodian "Navy" at their headquarters in Phnom Penh.

Coincidentally, during the same week as the Bangkok Post’s bold headlines about Cambodian terrorism, another article quoted Cambodian officials as saying that Cambodia would not be able to participate in "Team Samurai" due to its inability to put any seaworthy vessels to sea. This East Asian naval war game was intended to practice and train east Asian Naval forces in the hypothetical scenario of intercepting WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) on the high seas, most probably being smuggled from North Korea.

Obviously with no operational navy or air force, Cambodian coasts, borders and airspace are open to anyone and everyone that should choose to violate or operate from them, which is an ideal situation for terrorists possibly wanting to use the Kingdom as a staging ground for acts off the Cambodian coast or in other regional or global terrorist activities.

Cambodia although geographical large by comparison to its regional neighbors is a small country with regards to its population. Having only 13 million, (of which 1.3 million live in the capital of Phnom Penh) the population density, especially along its coasts and borders are significantly less than its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, which by comparison have 65 million and 83 million respectively. One only has to move along its nearly 500 kilometers of coast by boat, motorbike or foot to see just how remote, isolated and unpopulated the coast and its many islands are.

During the same month of October, ChevronTexaco also officially announced the discovery of up to 400 million barrels of oil and 5 trillion cubic meters of gas 90 miles off the Cambodian coast. This is a first for Cambodia even though for many months the sleepy little port town's expatriates had whispered amongst themselves that there “was gold out there in them there waters” and it had been discovered. As it turned out, the rumors were true.

It is also very interesting to note in the announcement by Te Duong Tara, Director General of the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority Exploration, that since Cambodia has no natural resources to speak of, this find represents a huge potential to the people and government of Cambodia. He also however raised the issue of security against terrorism which was stated as necessary to sustain the exploration and exploitation. With hundreds of wells and platforms on both the Thai side of the Gulf of Thailand and in Vietnam's portion of the South China Sea, security is not only a concern for Cambodia but the United States and other regional powers.

Although seldom mentioned outside of Asia, piracy as well as terrorism is a growing threat also. Besides the real and present danger of infrastructure terrorism, high seas piracy in 2003 grew to 445 reported acts (recorded by the International Maritime Bureau), which was almost double the number from the previous year.

Cambodia, and more specifically the area around its southern port town of Sihanoukville and its quickly growing oil bunker facilities, deep water piers and eventual offshore platforms, represent important and growing strategic targets. Presently, they seem to the casual observer to be non-secured and with continuing statements by Cambodian officials indicating that they don't have the money or infrastructure necessary to field proper border, air and naval security forces, it seems Chevron/Texaco and by extension US officials, might be somewhat concerned about the situation.

It wasn’t that long ago on October 12, 2000 that the US destroyer U.S.S. Cole was attacked by a boat laden with explosives and was severely crippled, along with 17 crew members being killed and another 39 injured in the blast while refueling in the unsecured port of Aden, Yemen. Shortly after this incident, the French super tanker Limburg was also attacked and severely damaged, once again by a small suicide attack with a boat loaded with explosives. There was an effort however to suppress the second attack and make it appear as an accident knowing the repercussions to global shipping insurance prices if the truth was known.

It is apparent that terrorist groups realize the weakness that independent vessels at sea pose (including warships) and disrupting their free flowing moments can wreck severe havoc on both commercial and military operations. Cambodia, with its strategic position near the tip of the shipping channels to the far east from the Gulf of Thailand is a vital component to maritime security in the region and combined with 1,000's of offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf, is of strategic importance for both the region and industrialized nations, especially oil hungry nations such as Japan and Taiwan.

Terrorism has become the new “ism” for America and the free world. This “ism”, like communism before it, is a global fight although this battle is mostly being fought in the shadows of lesser developed nations, from Pakistan to Cambodia. Combined with the real and growing threat of nuclear proliferation in rogue states such as North Korea and Iran and their proximity to large pockets of US forces due to their development or acquisition of long range, nuclear capable rocket forces, the redistribution of the US “footprint” farther away from the threat, becomes even a greater necessity.

Additionally, nations who have been close allies with the United States are now choosing courses that expose them less to a US military alliance. Japan, although deeply divided on the continued US “occupation” of Okinawa by over 40,000 US Marines is growing wary of the continuing incidents between forces stationed there and their civilian population.

Even as recently as October 18, the Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura gave assurances to Okinawan leaders that the Japanese government is committed to reducing the U.S. military presence on Okinawa. Recently the high profile crash of a Sea Stallion helicopter into Okinawa International University on August 13th and yet another reported rape, left citizens throughout Japan bitterly angry about American troops on Japanese soil leading to massive demonstrations around Japan. On October 30th, a decapitated Japanese man whose body was wrapped in an American flag was also found in an insurgent-controlled section of Baghdad. Japanese public opinion about America, its occupation of Okinawa and Japan's participation in Iraq it seems will be one of continuing strong protests.

When (U.S. Secretary of Defense) Donald Rumsfeld visited Okinawa last November, he was told by the island's governor, 'You people are on the active volcano and when it explodes it is going to bring down your entire strategy in Asia in much the way the fall of the Berlin Wall did for the USSR.'

Although coincidental once again, in the same edition of the Bangkok Post announcing to the world that Cambodia is the next terrorist haven, a small article appeared in which the US and Japan announced in joint statements that they would hold talks on reducing the controversial US troop presence on Okinawa Island. US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Tokyo after meetings with Japanese leaders that the two allies would hold a "higher level of dialogue" in "the months ahead" to deal with "reducing our presence in Okinawa and other places."

Younger Koreans are also becoming increasing angry about US policies and their participation in them. Recent events including the beheading of a South Korean translator in Iraq and their decision to send 3,000 troops there, have left Koreans very sour about their involvement in a war faraway when they perceive their enemy to be only minutes away in North Korea.

It seems likely that US policy makers are becoming increasingly aware that forces need to be moved for a variety of reasons, but due to ongoing security concerns in strategic areas such as Southeast Asia and the Far East, the question becomes where?

Sometimes the simplest answer can come from looking at a map. A map easily shows why Afghanistan was and is so important if you need to move the massive oil reserves in the eastern Caspian Sea and the steppes of Kazakhstan to Far East Asian markets and a map will also quickly show why Cambodia could very well figure into US security plans in both the Far East and around the world.

However what a map won’t show you is the fact that the Cambodian government is a new government and one open and receptive to "deals". Large Muslim populations don’t exist in Cambodia by comparison to other countries in the region such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Although Thailand does have ideal naval and aviation facilities on its eastern oil rich gulf coast (Sattahip and Ao/U Tapao), given the continuing high profile problems with Thailand’s Muslim population, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra would be committing political suicide by allowing US troops to be temporarily or permanently deployed once again to Thai soil (US forces were stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War), especially after his recent orders to send another 7,000 Thai troops to the 3 southern provinces where Muslim uprisings and killings have become an everyday occurrence.

Vietnam, although an ideal location for a far east base as history has shown (i.e. Cam Ran Bay), having in place existing deep water ports, facilities and an ideal location to support the footprint redistribution, is politically out of the question due to the remaining memories of the Vietnam War and the political realities between the two nations. Taiwan is impossible as well as mainland China views Taiwan as nothing more than a renegade province and one which must be returned to the one “China”. Any large scale US military deployments to Taiwan would be perceived as a direct threat to the mainland and its military.

Singapore might be considered but is most probably too close to large Muslim populations and would be difficult to secure and deployments there would be politically unacceptable. Indonesia and Malaysia have majority Muslim populations as well and any US deployments there might meet the same type of stiff resistance shown by elements of the Turkish government during the second Gulf War when the US wanted to use Turkey as a base for the war in Iraq.

Australia and New Zealand are just too far away from the area to be secured. Burma is on the wrong side of the Isthmus of Kra and has gotten even more hard-line in recent weeks, including the sacking of its intelligence chief and others in a move to crush any western leaning tendencies and any moment towards human rights; which leaves only Cambodia as a possible candidate.

Cambodia has the strategic location, a nominal Muslim population and a new government and King. Additionally, it has an ideal deep-water port and large, offshore islands capable of housing large troop deployments and naval facilities, with no indigenous populations to contend with. It also has no operational naval and air forces of its own and its new government seems to be setting the tone that would allow outside “assistance” due to a perceived threat of terrorism against its new found wealth in offshore oil and gas.

Sokimex Oil bunkering facility in Sihanoukville CambodiaAs everyone who is even vaguely familiar with Cambodia knows, infrastructure at all levels is pitifully lacking and maintenance and support for its military practically non-existent. This leaves a situation where 443 kilometers of Cambodian coastline are completely unprotected, as are its numerous islands and its' airspace. It would be a simple matter to secure these areas in the quickest possible way (against terrorism) with the deployment of US forces into the port area of Sihanoukville.

It is interesting to note as well that almost in conjunction with the King’s abdication, the consolidation and legitimacy of political power with Prime Minister Hun Sen and the official announcement of the discovery of oil and gas off the coast of Cambodia, that Japan announced a $39.2 million loan to "expand the impoverished country's main sea port". The money will be used to expand the 160-meter cargo container berth and upgrade cargo handling equipment at the Sihanoukville port. The loan was the second for the port project following the previous loan of about $40 million five years ago. Combined with a new joint US/Cambodia military arms depot being built somewhere in the area, could port development be taking on an alternative use?

With IMF studies calculating a drop in Cambodian GDP and an 11.5% drop in exports in 2005, (due to mainly WTO quotas and lack of competitiveness on next year’s textile manufacturing, Cambodia’s number one export), one has to question why such a loan for a port with dwindling products to ship? Has someone cornered the market on Cambodian cashew nuts or fig oil instead?

Cambodia's oil port bunker expansion in SihanoukvilleMaybe an alternative explanation for the expansion, construction and deepening of the port itself is for ships bringing cargo into Cambodia. But if that is the case, what could that possibly be?

Japan wants 40,000 US Marines, their dependents and their equipment out of Okinawa yesterday and is most likely going to have to foot the bill for their movement. Could an alternative rational however for these heavy cranes (being financed by Japan) be for far heavier items than standard Maersk shipping containers, let’s say instead for re-located US Marine equipment including 60 ton M-1A1 Main Battle Tanks?

It is also very interesting to note the amount of high end civilian construction in the area including a new golf course along one of the most developed and famous beaches on the coast, a new 5-star beach resort that has taken the entire beach and valley it occupies, a new airfield with no obvious airline or airplanes from which to operate in and out from it and new Monte Carlo type casinos with heliports.

The companies that have or are now building these multi-million dollar projects are only a few and are tightly tied together working under names such as Ariston, Naga and Soka. It seems almost like the money boys know something, as Sihanoukville is a sleepy little town on the best of days with tourism measured in dozens per day, which doesn't seem to justify the spending of 10s of millions of dollars for “tourism” infrastructure. Thousands of US military and civilian personnel would however change all this.

The relocation of large numbers of US armed forces to the area could possibly change this "sleepy little port" into something along the lines of the old Subic Bay in the Philippines if they were placed ashore. It would however leave these troop highly exposed under existing conditions and unless the Cambodian government was willing and able to grant large concessions of land, a base the size necessary for a large contingent of US Marines and the security necessary for them on the mainland would be politically and economically difficult to say the least.

The problem could however be easily solved if you found an island (maybe two?) off the coast where both the islands and their occupants were literally out of sight and out of mind to the mainland residents. It would also be easier to secure. Combine that with a deep water harbor, an airfield and a location on a strategic oil and sea lane, you might just have the ideal facility to secure an unsecured coast as well as protect strategic regional resources.

It seems Sihanoukville might have just the ticket in the form of the second largest island in Cambodian, Koh Rong and its smaller sister island of Koh Rong Samloem. With no development of any kind including villages, roads, etc. except for approximately 100 indigenous Khmer families, this huge island with 8-10 kilometer beaches is ideally suited for a military base and combined with its sister island’s deep water harbor, you have established the perfect base location within the region with no fuss and no muss.

Are the US Marines coming to Cambodia? No one will confirm it but yet no one will deny it either. Rumors were rampant for months about offshore oil and gas and they are rampant again about 25,000 US Marines coming to Sihanoukville.

Time will tell as it always does but it appears from the outside looking in that Sihanoukville could play a role once again in American and world history, and that role might be sooner than later.

2008 Story Updates:

January 12, 2008 -
Sihanoukville to have Cambodia's largest airport

2007 Story Updates:

December 8, 2007 -
US Navy to increase port visits to Sihanoukville

December 7, 2007 -
US Navy health care in Cambodia

December 2, 2007 -
US Marine carrier USS Essex makes Cambodian port call

Related USS Essex Articles:

  • U.S. ship in Cambodia on medical, military mission...
  • Sasebo-based Essex headed to Cambodia instead of B...
  • US Marine Carrier USS Essex Arrives in Cambodia
  • November 8, 2007 -
    China gives Cambodia nine naval patrol boats

    November 5, 2007 -
    1,800 U.S. Marines on USS Essex to visit Cambodia in late November

    November 5, 2007 -
    Thailand seeks
    Cambodian oil

    November 1, 2007 -
    Japan's navy to quit Afghan mission and stops US Navy refueling operations

    October 20, 2007 -
    Chevron to extend concessions in Gulf of Thailand

    October 20, 2007 -
    Countries rushing into Cambodia's oil riches

    October 14, 2007 -
    41 Nation WMD Naval Exercise takes place off Japan

    October 13, 2007 -
    Cambodia forms body to deal with prospect of onshore oil in Tonle Sap lake

    October 12, 2007 -
    Singapore Petroleum Company exploring for Cambodian oil

    October 5, 2007 -
    Asian's oil boom not all it seems

    September 28, 2007 -
    Cambodia seeks help from Brunei on oil

    September 24, 2007 - Economic Brief: Oil and Gas Dynamics in the Gulf of Thailand'

    US Marives in Cambodia

    September 09, 2007 -
    US Marines on duty in Cambodia - Part 2

    September 09, 2007 -Cambodia can earn 174 mln USD from oil production in 2011: IMF

    September 08, 2007 -
    US Marines on duty in Cambodia - Part 1

    August 27, 2007 -
    Cambodia to train 2,000 marines to protect Chevron's oil

    August 24, 2007 -
    Cambodian Defense Minister meets with both US and Chinese officials

    August 24, 2007 -
    US ready to provide Cambodia with anti-terror training

    August 10, 2007 -
    Cambodia to expand Navy to protect oil fields

    February 13, 2007 -
    USS Gary Makes Historic Ship Visit to Cambodia

    January 26, 2007 -
    Cambodia's coming energy bonanza

    Related Story Photo Montages

    Cambodia's northwest seacoast out of Sihanoukville with oil bunkering facilities

    Port Sihanoukville Cambodia Port Development

    US Embassy in Phnom Penh under construction in 2004

    Sihanoukville's new Hotels and Guest Houses

    Koh Rong Island's Sea Gypsy Village

    Sihanoukville's New Airport Opening Cermonies

    Sihanoukville's Five Star Soka Beach Resort

    Background Articles

    Oct. 26, 2004 - Powell meets with Japanese Foreign Minister

    Oct. 15, 2004 - The latest battle for Okinawa may be entering into a critical phase

    Oct. 14, 2004 - Protests continue vs. U.S. bases in Japan

    Oct. 07, 2004 - Japan, US in discord over base relocation

    Nov. 25, 2003 - USS Cole Bomb Plot Suspect Caught

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