The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia has not been biting its tongue since President Joe Biden took office. Speaking on the first day of Chinese New Year in February, Jonathan Turley, the embassy’s political chief, said the U.S. sought a “peaceful, prosperous, and independent” Cambodia — and then blasted the sad state of democracy and ever-closer ties with China.
“As a friend and a partner to Cambodia, we naturally have concerns when we see Cambodia moving away from that, when we see a government at every level is dominated by just one party, when peaceful citizens are arrested and imprisoned just for expressing their views, when corruption is unchecked and the powerful act with impunity, and when the Kingdom’s hard-won independence and sovereignty are being eroded,” Turley told VOA Khmer.
In a thinly veiled reference to China, Turley said: “I would note as well that we are very committed to the Kingdom’s sovereignty. So we are naturally concerned when we see Cambodian sovereignty being eroded, when we see a growing foreign military presence, and when foreign companies contribute to or are involved in corruption violating lands, laborers, and environmental regulations.”
Sixteen months since Biden took office, rancor has defined the US-Cambodia relationship. And yet Prime Minister Hun Sen, along with leaders from nine other Southeast Asian nations, will likely be standing next to Biden and smiling for photographs later this week for the U.S.-ASEAN summit in the White House.
While the U.S. continues to regularly criticize Cambodia’s backsliding on human rights and democracy, analysts said it’s China’s influence that is driving U.S. strategy in the region, and causing the Biden administration to take such a frank approach to Phnom Penh, perhaps Beijing’s closest ally in the region.
“Because the US continues to rigidly view Cambodia through the lens of its intensifying competition with China, the mood among the US foreign policy community has been consistently negative, leading to a deeply entrenched misunderstanding about the nature of Cambodia’s foreign policy and its position vis-à-vis China and the US,” said Royal University of Phnom Penh’s lecturer Bong Chansambath.
He added that Cambodia was fully aware of the political and security risks that come with overt alignment with geopolitical superpowers — with the U.S. backing the corrupt Lon Nol regime in the early 1970s, China supporting the murderous Khmer Rouge that came next, and Vietnam occupying Cambodia for years after that.
“The misguided belief that Cambodia is China’s proxy is counterproductive and detrimental to the foreign policy interests of Cambodia, the US, and their shared ties,” Chansambath said.
Though Biden has promised to double down on U.S. ties with Southeast Asia, Chansambath noted that U.S. policy on Cambodia is essentially a continuation of the Trump administration, which spoke out about the decline of democracy across Cambodia and sanctioned key Hun Sen allies.
From 2018 to 2020, the Trump Administration slapped sanctions on Hun Sen’s bodyguard chief Gen. Hing Bunheag (for leading an entity involved in serious human rights abuses), retired former military chief of staff Gen. Kun Kim (for his role in a massive Chinese-funded development that uprooted coastal communities) and Try Pheap (among Cambodia’s most notorious timber barons, with alleged links to the ruling family).
The Biden administration has sanctioned two more senior Cambodian generals – including navy chief Adm. Tea Vinh – over their role in China’s development in and around the key naval base in Sihanoukville, which the U.S. worries is part of a longer-term plan for a Chinese military presence on Cambodia’s coast. The U.S. has also imposed an arms embargo on Phnom Penh, and terminated military scholarship programs for Cambodian officers, again over concerns related to ties with China.
It’s not just the U.S. that believes Phnom Penh is increasingly moving into China’s corner. In April, Cambodia was ranked the “most exposed” country to Chinese influence in an index from the Taipei-based group Doublethink Lab, which looked at levels of Chinese influence in 36 countries worldwide, from military to politics and from academia to technology.
The Cambodian government’s chief spokesperson Phay Siphan said neither China or America is welcome to establish a military presence in the country. “Cambodia has learnt full well in its history about the consequences of both officially or unofficially hosting foreign military presences, that sent Cambodia into wars,” he told VOA Khmer in February.
Phay Siphan said it would be “unacceptable” to conclude that the volume of Chinese investment and presence in Cambodia meant the Phnom Penh government “sold off its sovereignty” to Beijing. He said the U.S. and Cambodia have struggled to understand each other since the 1950s, when Cambodia won independence from France. “Despite U.S. efforts, they have not understood the depth of the Cambodian way of life and their demands on democracy and human rights,” he said.
Hun Sen has proven an adept diplomat despite his periodic ruthless approach at home, promising enough reforms to keep Western donors engaged and throttling down repression when foreign or domestic pressure mounts. But observers worry that the latest turn toward China — along with the success against his political opposition over the past decade — means a more sustained period of authoritarianism may be in store.
Phay Siphan, himself a Cambodian American, said Washington needs Phnom Penh to get anything done with the ASEAN bloc as a whole. Apart from being a major trade partner of the U.S., the region has a booming population and is strategically placed on the South China Sea, a key theater in the geopolitical struggle between the superpowers.
“The U.S. also needs Cambodia because Cambodia has a vote in ASEAN in the spirit of consensus,” Phay Siphan said. “Regarding Cambodia as an enemy will make one difficult to deal with ASEAN because Cambodia has a voice to veto any cooperation with external partners like the U.S.”
And despite its tough talk about U.S. interference in its affairs, Cambodia has also shown a desire to mend fences. Since 2019, the Cambodian government has hired at least three U.S.-based lobbying firms in an effort to improve ties with Washington and attract American investment.
The U.S. is a crucial export market for Cambodia, particularly its garment sector, with two-way trade in goods rising to about $9 billion in 2021, up from $6.9 billion in 2020, and is on pace to increase again this year. The U.S. has yet to renew preferential trade status to Cambodia after it lapsed last year.
But despite the mutual benefits of cooperation, Sun Kim, a lecturer at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia, said he does not believe the forthcoming summit would result in better U.S.-Cambodia bilateral relations.
“I agree with the notion that it is China, not the democracy and not Cambodia itself, that has topped U.S. focus in Cambodia,” Sun Kim said, adding that Phnom Penh was “being forced to heed Washington’s demands.”
“In both long and short term, there cannot be an ease in Cambodia-U.S. ties anytime soon. It will remain fluctuating up and down due to Cambodia’s continued mistrust in the U.S. and the latter’s continued refusal to give up its coercive approach with Cambodia,” Sun Kim said.
Kosal Path, an associate professor at the City University of New York, disagreed that the China factor is the “defining issue” between Phnom Penh and Washington. He said the Biden administration’s continued push to uphold democracy and human rights was increasingly at odds with Hun Sen’s rule.
The Cambodian People’s Party has ruled a de facto one-party state since 2017 after dissolving its chief rival Cambodia National Rescue Party, grabbing all 125 parliamentary seats a year later in an election critics called a sham. Intimidation and legal harassment of politicians and opposition parties is again increasing ahead of local elections to be held in June and the next national parliamentary elections set for mid-2023.
“Such different political and ideological values will continue to be barriers to a closer relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party,” Kosal Path told VOA Khmer.
He added the Cambodian government’s recent efforts to woo for investments and trade pacts from South Korea, India, and Japan indicate Phnom Penh’s "concerted efforts" to “diversify economic relations” and “reduce exposure to the Sino-American rivalry”.
“The upcoming summit can be an opportunity for Cambodia as the ASEAN Chair to reset its relations with the United States by focusing on areas of common interests including reaffirmation of rules-based international order, the centrality of ASEAN in peaceful resolution of conflict in the region, trade and investment, and other low-politics areas especially education, science and technology, climate change,” Kosal Path said.
Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, said to challenge China in the region, the U.S. should reconsider its values-based policy toward Cambodia and neighboring Laos, following its own approach to Vietnam, where relations have warmed despite the Communist regime.
“I also think the Biden Administration has concluded that – perhaps prematurely – that Cambodia and Laos are both firmly within China’s strategic orbit and not in any way up for grab in the U.S.-China competition,” Grossman told VOA Khmer, adding that there is a need to “reset” bilateral U.S.-Cambodia relations though Hun Sen “is not easy to deal with.”
“I think we are going to find out a lot more when the ASEAN leaders…visit the White House in terms of how the U.S. views Cambodia’s role in ASEAN,” Grossman said.
Still, he said there was little hope of a major reset as long as Hun Sen remained in power, adding that may change if and when the prime minister’s son, Hun Manet, takes charge. The CPP endorsed his eventual ascension during an extraordinary party congress late last year.
Chansambath of the Royal University of Phnom Penh emphasized that however the U.S. chooses to deal with Cambodia, the ruling party isn’t going to change soon.
“Whether or not the US is comfortable with the current political status quo in Cambodia, it is up to US policymakers to decide. What I may say here is that the CPP is currently the most established and predominant political force in Cambodia and will continue to be so in the upcoming years, if not decades,” he said, asserting that “the US needs to work with the CPP” to have an ‘’effective’’ approach dealing with Cambodia.