U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy urged Cambodia to pursue a good relationship with China, but also cautioned against the potential effects the bonhomie could have on their sovereignty and financial sustainability.
In a wide-ranging interview with Voice of America Khmer on December 13, and his first since taking over as ambassador in August, Ambassador Murphy said Cambodia is free to choose its partners, adding that it was not unusual to see Chinese investment entering the country.
“Cambodia should have a good relationship with China,” Murphy said. “The United States seeks to have a good relationship with China. It can be complicated.”
China, by far, is Cambodia’s largest trading partner and source of foreign direct investment, with bilateral trade volume reaching $7 billion last year.
The influx of Chinese investments and nationals have transformed the Cambodian coastal city of Sihanoukville. The influx of Chinese money and workers, especially the increases in crime, has drawn sharp domestic criticism and observers pointing to Cambodia’s over-reliance on a single market.
“What we do suggest is that Cambodia thinks about its relationships not be completely beholden to a single country,” he said.
Murphy said that “media reports” pointing to a potential Chinese naval base in Preah Sihanouk’s Ream Naval Base would pose a challenge for Cambodia’s relations with the U.S. and the region.
“We think Cambodia, if it has such designs really, should think very, very carefully about protecting its sovereignty and not entertaining the notion of a foreign government basing military assets here and inside the country,” said Murphy.
In July, the Wall Street Journal ran a report saying that Cambodia and China had allegedly inked a deal to give the Chinese navy access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. A U.S. army general in charge of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command even confirmed the arrangement in August – which has since been fiercely denied by Cambodian officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Senator Sok Eysan, also a spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, called reports about the potential plan for Chinese access to Ream naval base as “imaginary” and an attempt to “smear” Cambodia, but said he welcomed Murphy’s views on Cambodia’s foreign relations.
The CPP’s government was mindful about balancing its foreign policy to benefit the country, Sok Eysan added.
“I think the concerns raised by the U.S. Ambassador are encouraging for the increased responsibility of Cambodian government on the issues,” he said.
Sophal Ear, an associate professor at the Occidental College in Los Angeles, agreed with Murphy, saying that Phnom Penh should not antagonise Washington. He said that Cambodia should be wary of “putting all its eggs in China's basket.”
“Yet Phnom Penh seems intoxicated with the money and luxury that Beijing affords. This is very addictive.”
The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to a request for comment.