US tightens curbs as Cambodia moves closer into China’s embrace

New sanctions, including an arms embargo, imposed amid concern about China’s influence and the effects on the wider region.

Cambodian soldiers at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province. The base is among several areas where the US is concerned about China's 'growing influence' [File: Kith Serey/EPA]

The United States has announced new restrictions on Cambodia, including an arms embargo, citing the “growing influence” of the Chinese military, as well as corruption and human rights abuses.

The State Department imposed an arms embargo while the Commerce Department announced new trade restrictions on military and dual-use items that may be used for civilian or military purposes, on December 8.

“Commerce has placed new restrictions, including end-use and end-user restrictions, on exports and reexports to Cambodia, and in-country transfers within Cambodia, of sensitive items subject to the Export Administration Regulations (EAR),” the department said in a statement.

Peter Kucik, a sanctions expert, says this means even third countries now cannot sell certain products they have purchased from the US to Cambodia. “Even if you’re not a US entity you could violate US law by selling something on,” he said, adding that the EAR restrictions also apply to “dual-use” technology.

“Hypothetically, a device that could have a perfectly civilian use, but could also have a military purpose, would be restricted because if it’s used by the wrong party, it could be used for military purposes,” he explained.

The US has long been concerned with a possible Chinese military presence in Cambodia, first questioning developments in Koh Kong, and then at Ream Naval Base in neighbouring Preah Sihanouk province.

In 2020, US-funded structures at the Ream base were demolished and the Wall Street Journal reported a secret agreement to allow China use of the base for 30 years, which Cambodia has denied.

In June, Cambodia’s defence minister Tea Banh confirmed that China was helping with infrastructure at the base in an interview with government-linked Fresh News.

“We want to develop a suitable place … Cambodia alone can’t do it. It is moderately costly as well, but I don’t know how much,” Voice of America (VOA) quoted him as saying in the interview. “They [China] are helping with no strings attached.”

The US defence attache visited shortly afterwards and walked out of a tour of the base, claiming he was not granted “full access”.

The US has imposed sanctions on two Cambodian defence officials for ‘involvement in significant corruption’ at the Ream base [File: Kith Serey/EPA]

Satellite photos published recently by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, show expansion work at Ream continued in August and September with three new buildings constructed, and land and trees being cleared for a road.

In November, the US announced targeted sanctions against Cambodian defence ministry official Chau Phirun and naval officer Tea Vinh for “involvement in significant corruption” in relation to the renovations at the base.

‘Despotic friends of practicality’

Prime Minister Hun Sen has dismissed the recent developments as “only political gestures”, that will have no real influence, while his foreign affairs spokesman again denied reports of foreign military presence in Cambodia in a statement to Radio Free Asia.

But Kucik says the trade restrictions could have a real, immediate effect in terms of discouraging even non-US entities from doing business with the Cambodian government.

“It may be a stretch that violators get hauled into US court, but people do get extradited from all over the world to the US, so it’s not intangible, there is a real risk. More realistically, and more fundamentally, you might kill your entire business model. If you break US law, you’re never going to get anything from the US again and US firms would be on notice that you’re off-limits,” he said.

Cambodia has moved closer to China as Hun Sen’s crackdown on opposition, and slide towards dictatorship, increase tensions with the US. In 2017, main opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested on treason charges and his party dissolved, after being accused of conspiring with the US to overthrow the government. The move turned Cambodia into a de facto one-party state.

As Cambodia takes on the chairmanship of ASEAN again, there are concerns about what it might mean for the group’s attempts at diplomacy in Myanmar. Prime Minister Hun Sen invited military foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin (left) to Phnom Penh and will visit Myanmar in January [An Khoun/EPA]

Paul Chambers, from the Center of ASEAN Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand, says Hun Sen’s government has “transformed Cambodia into an effective economic, military and political dependency” of China and the US allegations “should not be simply dismissed”.

“These allegations may worsen Cambodian-US relations, but those relations are already so strained that it is difficult to wonder how Cambodia could be any deeper in China’s orbit,” he added.

A Chinese naval presence in Cambodia could also have implications in the South China Sea, and other territorial disputes. Cambodia previously blocked an ASEAN consensus in 2016, which would have called for China to respect an international ruling that found in favour of the Philippines in the dispute with China.

The Philippines is just one of several ASEAN countries with claims over the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety.

“Hun Sen has well positioned Cambodia as a useful cog in China’s attempts to dominate Southeast Asia and divide ASEAN,” Chambers said.

Cambodia’s last stint as chair of the organisation in 2012 marked the first time the group failed to issue a joint statement closing communique – again over the South China Sea – after a standoff between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal.

Cambodia again appears primed to disrupt ASEAN as it takes over chairmanship of the regional bloc for 2022, breaking sharply with previous policy to exclude the Myanmar military government, which seized power in a coup in February.

Hun Sen has instead embraced dialogue and direct engagement, scheduling a trip to the country in January, which would make him the first head of state to visit since the generals seized power.

Against this backdrop of rising tensions and complications, US State Department counsellor Derek Chollet is visiting Phnom Penh, to discuss the Myanmar crisis among other issues.

Chambers says he may be hoping to “read the barometer as to the closeness of Cambodia-Myanmar ties”.

“Perhaps military-dominated Myanmar and the Hun Sen dictatorship in Cambodia can become despotic friends of practicality with China as an able patron,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera