SOUTHEAST ASIA, May 25 (The Diplomat) – Earlier this month, I wrote a column for Radio Free Asia (“The Funan Techo Canal won’t end Cambodia’s dependency on Vietnam”) arguing for some level-headedness in discussions of the potential construction of the Funan Techo Canal, which will cut through eastern Cambodia, connecting the capital to the southern coast. But a few more remarks are needed because of some rather oddball opinions espoused of late, including some made recently by Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader.

He has claimed – for instance, in emails to several newspapers in which I was bcc’ed for some reason, so I presume it wasn’t private discourse – that the canal has “very limited economic interest” for Cambodia. The environmental risk assessments on the canal have not been made public yet, so we can hold off on the economic assessments. Phnom Penh reckons it could cut costs by a third, although that is probably an exaggeration.

Nonetheless, the canal holds a strategic economic interest in that, as I’ve argued, it ends much of Cambodia’s dependence on Vietnam’s ports. The canal would connect the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port to a planned deepwater port in Kep province and an already-built deep seaport in Sihanoukville. Currently, much of Cambodia’s trade, especially from and to Phnom Penh, goes through Vietnam’s southern ports, mainly Cai Mep. The Cambodia government reckons the canal will cut shipping through Vietnamese ports by 70 percent.

First off, at present, Cambodia’s ports don’t get that much trade, so they remain less developed than they could be. Neither does the Cambodian taxman get his money. So there’s an economic interest for Cambodia in having more of its trade go through its own ports. Moreover, it would end the risk of  Vietnam essentially blockading much of Cambodia’s trade, should events prompt that, by not allowing it access to its ports. It did this briefly in the early 1990s. And Phnom Penh – if it’s thinking strategically, knowing it cannot guarantee that peace in the Mekong region will last forever – has an interest in ensuring that much of its trade is not dependent on another country. It is striking that the likes of Sam Rainsy, who has campaigned for most of his life to end perceived or real Vietnamese influence over Cambodia, can overlook this factor. Then again, it goes against the argument of some people who still think the Hun family is a lackey of the “yuon,” as the Vietnamese are often termed.

One also has to put this into perspective. Port construction is at a frenzy in the region. Malaysia is now trying to double the capacity of its largest port, Klang, which is also the second-largest in the region. Westports Holdings, the operator, will invest $8.34 billion over the coming decades to increase its annual capacity from 14 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) to 27 million TEU. Malaysia’s Sapangar Bay Container Port, in Sabah, will also be expanded. Thailand is pushing for a vast port development under its Southern Corridor scheme. And the idea of the Kra canal – either as a canal or a series of railways connecting the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea across the Kra Isthmus – is back on the table in Bangkok. So Cambodia isn’t alone in wanting to develop a canal or boost its ports’ capacity. Competition is hotting up among Southeast Asia’s ports.

None of this would have made international headlines if it wasn’t for the strategically sensitive issue of China’s role in the Funan Techo Canal;  the suggestion being that the canal has military implications. China having special access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base is one thing. After all, it is a military base and is less than 30 kilometers from the Vietnamese coastline. If a maritime conflict were to begin between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea, having naval vessels stationed off southern Cambodia would essentially mean that China encircles Vietnam – it could attack from the north, east, and south.

However, I fail to see the military purpose of the Chinese navy being able to traverse up a relatively small canal into mainland Cambodia and take a sharp right and launch an attack on Vietnam via the Mekong. Presumably, the best option would be just to travel the 30 kilometers from Ream to the Vietnamese coast. And as I wrote in Radio Free Asia: “if you can imagine Cambodia allowing the Chinese military access to its inland waterways to invade Vietnam, why not imagine Phnom Penh allowing the Chinese military to zip along its (Chinese-built) expressways and railways to invade Vietnam?  If you are of that mindset, then Cambodia’s road or rail networks are just as much of a threat, or perhaps more so, as Cambodia’s naval bases or canals.”

Sam Rainsy, for instance, has alternatively argued that the Funan Techo Canal “will provide Beijing with a continuous waterway, uninterrupted from southern China to the Gulf of Thailand, passing through Laos and Cambodia… The waterway will be suitable for transporting goods, including weapons and ammunition, from China to the Gulf of Thailand.” That makes some sense, but only if you consider it for less than a minute.

Yes, if a conflict were to start between China and Vietnam, Beijing might not be able to ship munitions or arms through the South China Sea to a fleet that would supposedly be anchored off the Ream Naval Base. But why transport it by river? First off, from the Chinese border with Laos to Phnom Penh, the Mekong River is about, what, 1,000 kilometers long? Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. So how long would it take a ship to travel that route? At least a week? Maybe longer? It’s certainly not quick. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to get these ships through Laos’ entire stretch of the Mekong, which will raise diplomatic issues between Vientiane and Hanoi. Thailand might also have something to say about it, too. Plus, a convoy of large Chinese vessels sailing down the river is going to be rather conspicuous, so Hanoi would hardly be taken by surprise.

More to the point, what weapons and ammunition are we talking about? If the idea is that China could transport military equipment all the way along the Mekong to Phnom Penh, and thereafter via the Funan Techo Canal to its ships presumably moored off the Ream Naval Base, we have to be talking about naval munitions and arms. But those are not light. Quite frankly, you’re not going to be able to do it. The Mekong is too narrow for ships that could carry such equipment. So, too, is the canal. According to Financial Times, Vietnamese sources reckon “Hanoi retains leverage over Cambodia” because ships carrying more than 1,000 tons won’t be able to traverse the canal and so would still rely on Vietnamese ports for trade. Presumably, ships carrying naval hardware would be in the 1,000-ton range, so wouldn’t be able to pass through the canal either. Moreover, why would you want to put expensive naval equipment out in the open for several days, at risk from a swarm of Vietnamese drones that could easily disrupt the shipment?

If you’re not talking about large naval hardware, then what’s the point of moving arms down the canal? If you’re talking about China shipping guns, artillery, and other munitions for a land assault on Vietnam, the boats could simply carry along the Mekong all the way into Vietnam. Moreover, why wouldn’t China fly (smaller) weapons and munitions to a Cambodian airport, such as the suspiciously large one near the Ream Naval Base? That would take a few hours. And it would be cheaper. And it would be more secretive than putting all your weapons on a boat. And it would put Cambodia and Laos less at risk of diplomatic fallout. More to the point, if China wanted to ship military equipment to Cambodia, you could only really transport light, non-naval equipment, in which case you wouldn’t need a canal as you’re not heading to the sea with that equipment.

None of the insinuations make sense. Yes, it’s prudent to be paranoid about what’s happening at the Ream Naval Base. It is a military base! But concerns about the military implications of the Funan Techo Canal just appear paranoid.

David Hutt is a journalist and commentator. He is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS), and a columnist at The Diplomat and Radio Free Asia.