A senior US Embassy official in Cambodia has warned Cambodia over its growing closeness with Beijing.
At a meeting in the capital, Michael Newbill, the embassy’s chargé d’affaires, said incurring substantial debts to China has had negative impacts on other countries, such as Sri Lanka and Djibouti.
“Cambodia’s leaders must recognize the risks of relying on only one partner, and whether its people will accept that major change in the country’s orientation,” Newbill said.
He went on to call for the Cambodian government to open up political space for “Cambodian people to have a voice in their country’s future”.
“Chinese investment can be beneficial, but these deals need scrutiny and close supervision to make sure the benefits go to the country, not the dealmakers,” Newbill said. “Transparency is essential for defending sovereignty.
“Most countries have fought long and hard to maintain their freedom, their independence — and would never allow their hard-won sovereignty to be sold to the highest bidder.”
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said on Tuesday that the comment by the chargé d’affaires was a “defense of the U.S.’s interests” which embraced “self-isolation” amid the Trump administration’s switch from multilateralism to bilateralism on trade.
“For Cambodia, we always tread carefully. Those past debts are within the repayable boundary and we will not allow those debts to create political influence on Cambodia. The government is absolutely committed to prevent Cambodia from falling into a geopolitical spat.”
Newbill’s remarks came after more than a year of political repression of critics and opposition party supporters in Cambodia that paved the way for the ruling party’s controversial July 29 victory that saw it take all seats in parliament.
Amid pressure from the U.S. and the European Union over its democratic decline, Beijing has defended Phnom Penh.
The suggestion by the U.S. official also came amid an escalating trade confrontation between Beijing and Washington, and growing skepticism of China’s alleged hidden ambition in its signature global development project: the Belt and Road Initiative.
But on a brief trip to China this month – the first trip abroad since the formulation of the new cabinet – Prime Minister Hun Sen sought to reassure Chinese investors by saying the Cambodian People’s Party was protecting their investments.
Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump granted an audience to Chum Sounry, the new Cambodian ambassador to the U.S.
The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh didn’t respond to a request for comment as of Tuesday.