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Cambodia Cancels U.S. Military Aid Program as China Ties Expand

U.S Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 74 from Gulfport, Missisisippi made a table in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct 31, 2005. (AP Photo/ Achmad Ibrahim)

The U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion ran a humanitarian program in Cambodia that included the building of schools, maternity wards and rural development.

Cambodia has scrapped a long-standing U.S. military aid program amid a diplomatic shift towards Beijing.

The government last week asked the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion to leave the country without explanation after nine years in the country, the U.S. Embassy said.

Earlier this year Cambodia canceled a joint military exercise with the U.S. and Prime Minister Hun Sen has lobbied for Cambodia’s war-era debt to be scrapped.

The battalion, known as the Seabees, ran a humanitarian program in Cambodia that included the building of schools, maternity wards and rural development.

A total of $815,000 worth of Seabees projects were planned between 2017 and 2019, according the an embassy spokesman.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia notified the Embassy last week of its decision to postpone indefinitely the mission of the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion -- better known as the Seabees -- which has been carrying out community service projects in underserved areas of Cambodia since 2008. The Cambodian government did not offer a reason for this decision,” Jay Raman, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, wrote in an email sent to VOA Khmer on Wednesday.

However, General Tea Vinh, commander of Cambodia’s navy force, was quoted by a local media claiming that Seabees were going on “vacation” but would continue to complete their assigned development projects.

In a further sign of Cambodia’s closeness with China, Hun Sen on Tuesday issued a note of thanks to Beijing for a $150 million grant which will pay for the construction of a new sports stadium in the capital.

“Thank Mr. President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang and the Chinese people that provided support and offered this major grant to Cambodia ... which reflects close friendship and cooperation between Cambodia and China,” he wrote on Facebook.

Chheang Vannarith, chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in an email on Wednesday that Cambodia was pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy.

“Cambodia is against any hegemonic power or patron-type country. Cambodia is pro-Cambodia and this has been the core principle of Cambodia's foreign policy,” he wrote.

“However, over-dependency on any single country may challenge Cambodia's permanent neutrality,” he added.

Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, however, said the canceling of U.S. Military aid could make it easier for the government to manipulate the upcoming elections.

“Cambodia’s national interest should be the driver of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Increasing dependence on China has long-term negative implications, like any over dependence on anyone. Cambodia should be independent,” he added.