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Experts Say US-Cambodia Relationship at "Crisis Point"

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen waves to supporters during his Cambodian People's Party's campaign in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Saturday, July 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Reports of a secret military deal between Cambodia and China have sparked increased tensions between the Southeast Asian nation and the United States. With bilateral interactions at a new low, experts say it is up to the U.S. to refresh the relationship soon or risk further alienation of Cambodia.

In the run-up to the 2017 commune election, U.S. relations with Cambodia were starting to fray. Senior government members had used every public platform to accuse the Western nation, along with the European Union, of attempting to orchestrate a so-called “color revolution” in the country.

Events following the results of the commune elections that year, where the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party won a third of the grassroots elected positions, showed a new low in diplomatic engagement had been reached.

That August, the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute was shuttered and its foreign staff asked to leave the country. A month later, opposition leader Kem Sokha was accused and jailed for allegedly taking U.S. assistance to mount a revolution, and Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service ended its in-country operations – two of its former journalists were later arrested for alleged espionage.

As Cambodia continued to target the U.S., Phnom Penh grew closer to China, largely on account of the latter’s infusion of infrastructure investment. More than $2 billion of approved investment came from China in 2018 alone, according to the World Bank. Beijing has clearly stated a hands-off, no interference policy when it comes to domestic issues, as witnessed during the dissolution of the CNRP, targeting of civil society groups and silencing of the free press.

FILE - Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China April 29, 2019.
FILE - Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China April 29, 2019.

Two years on, the U.S. and Cambodia are no closer to resolving their differences. Analysts suggest the souring relations indicate a crisis point might be near; some suggest a complete reset was needed in Washington D.C.’s approach to Cambodia.

Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” said the U.S.’ approach to focus the bilateral relationship fundamentally on Cambodia’s disregard for human rights violations was not working, leaving the door open for a new ally to fill the void.

“Hun Sen has looked around for another large power that can offer him the aid of infrastructure funding that he needs to sustain himself in power, but is not going to criticize about the set of Cambodian democracy and is not going to ‘meddle in Cambodian affairs,’” Strangio said.

“And China provides that – the perfect partner in that regard for him [Hun Sen],” he told VOA Khmer by phone.

The U.S. found itself up against an offer that Cambodia found more palatable and beneficial, said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Australia, and had no counteroffer.

“China is offering Cambodia a deal they can’t refuse, quite literally in the sense that they’re offering loans and investment, but those loans and investment come with heavy conditions, i.e. that Cambodia will acquiesce to China’s political and strategic interests, including hosting Chinese military forces,” said Davis.

Davis is referring to a Wall Street Journal article from July that reported Cambodia and China had signed a secret deal to allow Chinese military presence at the Ream Naval Base in the coastal province of Preah Sihanouk. The development came shortly after Cambodia had turned down a U.S. offer to repair the facilities at the same naval base.

A U.S. general based in Hawaii who focuses on strategy and planning for Asia, Gen. Joel Vowell, recently told VOA Khmer that the New York-based newspaper’s article was accurate. Vowell said China would begin construction at the base in 2020.

The report mirrored similar concerns raised by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last November in a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen over the potential use of a mega Chinese tourism project in Koh Kong province for military purposes. A runway being built for the resort had the technical specifications to host military planes, according to some military experts.

Cambodia has had contentious relations with past U.S. ambassadors. New U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, finds himself at the center of this diplomatic jockeying. The experienced Asia diplomat will now deal with a government that has squarely pivoted towards China.

Analysts expect Cambodia to get even closer to China, if the U.S. government’s attitude towards Phnom Penh remains the same. However, Murphy could signal a new change in the U.S. outlook to Cambodia.

In an opinion piece for Asia Times in July, Strangio pointed out that the U.S. was at a precipice in its relationship with Cambodia, and a quick course correction was needed before it was too late.

“As relations reach a crisis point, the time has come for the U.S. and other Western governments to abandon their bankrupt approach towards Cambodia and initiate a reset in relations,” Strangio wrote in the opinion piece.

Adding to that view, Strangio told VOA Khmer that it was crucial the U.S. ensured that its diplomatic dealings with Cambodia left no hint of a potential change of government – the primary driver of Hun Sen’s continuing grip on power.

“This is the main fear and concern that the CPP has. Of course, survival comes first for Prime Minister Hun Sen. That’s always been the case,” Strangio said, adding that a more pragmatic touch to diplomacy, akin to Japan’s dealing with Cambodia, would be preferable.

FILE - ASEAN leaders shake hands on stage during the opening ceremony of the 34th ASEAN Summit at the Athenee Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, June 23, 2019.
FILE - ASEAN leaders shake hands on stage during the opening ceremony of the 34th ASEAN Summit at the Athenee Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, June 23, 2019.

While Hun Sen would remain skeptical of the U.S., it would be prudent to work from the outside in, convincing Hun Sen allies in the government of the benefits of improved relations, said Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

This could be achieved using the ASEAN platform, and framing the alleged Chinese military presence at Ream Naval Base from a regional context, rather than a bilateral concern, Davis added.

However, Cambodia has shown it is willing to side with China on the ASEAN stage, occasionally at the cost of longstanding friendships with regional players, such as Vietnam. In 2012, the group, for the first time, failed to produce a joint communique after Cambodia, which was hosting the annual meeting, refused to allow any text on the contested South China Sea issue.

Andrew Mertha, Director of Chinese Studies at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S., said a quick reset of relations was needed. One potential move would be forgiving Cambodia’s $500 million war debt – a thorny issue regularly brought up by Cambodian leadership.

“Such a gesture would immediately move the U.S. into a position where it would be on a more level-playing field with Beijing, if we want to influence Cambodia,” said Mertha.

“Something like this would be a tremendously important way to reset our relations with Cambodia.”