Cambodia scraps US military aid deal in latest snub to Washington
Expulsion of ‘Seabees’ reflects regional tilt away from America and towards China
Financial Times | 5 April 2017
Cambodia has scrapped a long-running US military aid programme in the latest sign of a Southeast Asian nation tilting away from Washington and towards Beijing.
Phnom Penh has asked the US Navy Mobile Construction Battalion — known as the Seabees — to leave without explanation after nine years in the country, the US embassy in Cambodia said.
Cambodia this year cancelled a joint military exercise with the US while Hun Sen, the prime minister of 32 years, has revived a campaign to scrap debt to Washington racked up during the regional wars of the 1970s.
The moves by Phnom Penh, long a Chinese ally, echo shifts away from Washington in fellow Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.
Kung Phoak, president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said regional leaders were hoping President Donald Trump’s administration would — like Beijing — take a less “heavy-handed” approach to publicly criticising governments.
“Cambodia is not an exception in this case,” Mr Kung Phoak said. “There is a sentiment that there should be new ways of dealing with Southeast Asian countries — and some more understanding of political realities and social realities, in terms of democracy and human rights.”
Cambodia notified the US last week of the indefinite postponement of the Seabees’ “community service” work, which included building maternity wards, water wells and school bathrooms, the US embassy said. “We would refer you to the Cambodian government for an explanation of their decision to curtail this long-term co-operation,” it added.
Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, referred questions to the ministry of defence. General Chhum Socheath, defence ministry spokesman, said he knew nothing about the decision.
Hun Sen’s autocratic government has long helped quell criticism in Southeast Asia’s regional forums of China’s maritime territorial claims, while also maintaining reasonable relations with the US.
However, the prime minister has used Mr Trump’s arrival in the White House to renew calls for the cancellation of hundreds of millions of dollars of US loans made in the 1970s to the Washington-backed Lon Nol regime, which took power in a coup.
The US also bombed Cambodia heavily during the period as part of its war against Communist North Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge overthrew Lon Nol’s government in April 1975 and launched a genocide that killed at least a quarter of the population.
Mr Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-ruling leader, has over the years been irritated by US criticism of his efforts to concentrate power. Legal cases have been mounted against his leading opponents, while a law change this year allows the government to apply to the courts to have the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue party dissolved.
Cambodia in January postponed its annual joint Angkor Sentinel military exercise with the US, saying its military was too busy with an anti-drug crackdown and local elections due in June. In December it held the first “Golden Dragon” joint military manoeuvres with China.
The drill was part of growing Chinese security involvement in Cambodia, including the construction of a new deepwater port and the sale of helicopters and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Hun Sen’s 3,000-strong prime ministerial bodyguard, a private army equipped with armoured personnel carriers, missile launchers and Chinese-made machine guns, in 2010 formed an unusual “military-commercial alliance” with a Chinese-controlled company.