Veteran US diplomat W Patrick Murphy is expected to soon be appointed as new ambassador to Cambodia. Photo: Twitter

As Washington contemplates possible trade reprisals against Cambodia over an escalating political clampdown, the likely next US ambassador to the country can be expected to push a hard democratic line.

W Patrick Murphy, who until this week served as acting principal deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, could be sworn in as ambassador to Cambodia by the Senate in coming weeks and installed in Phnom Penh as early as July, informed sources say.

The US Embassy in Cambodia has not had an ambassador in residence for several months, despite escalating tensions between Washington and Phnom Penh and between the United States and China, Cambodia’s top ally and creditor.

The move to install Murphy, who has served as the US State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia since April 2016 and is a recognized Southeast Asia expert, would indicate the importance Washington places on Cambodia, which is currently under pressure from the US and European Union for severe democratic backsliding.

Murphy, a graduate of the National War College, visited Cambodia twice in 2017 in his deputy assistant secretary capacity, and is viewed by regional observers as strongly committed to democracy-building in Southeast Asia.

As second in command at the US Embassy in Thailand, where he served as de facto ambassador for several months, Murphy was known for taking a tough line against the kingdom’s then ruling generals, who under US law faced sanctions as a democracy-suspending military government.

US diplomat W Patrick Murphy (R) speaks with a Thai military official during the joint Cobra Gold military exercises. Photo: Facebook

Murphy was also seen as instrumental in US diplomatic efforts to coax Myanmar towards democracy in exchange for lifting economic sanctions during his tenure in that Southeast Asian country. He served in Myanmar as a special representative in 2012 and traveled widely, meeting with various stakeholders while the country was still under quasi-military rule.

“It’s a sign that the Trump Administration is considering Cambodia as a more important and strategic country, as Patrick Murphy is senior and quite respected in Asia-Pacific diplomatic circles,” Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum think tank, said in a March press interview.

In late 2017, a pliant Supreme Court forcibly dissolved the country’s only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Kem Sokha, its president, was arrested  on treason charges for allegedly conspiring with the United States to foment a “color revolution.”

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979, went on to win all 125 seats in parliament at last July’s general election, a ballot that the White House described as “neither free nor fair” and which “failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.”

In recent months, the US Congress has tabled several punitive laws, including the Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act of 2019, introduced to the Senate on May 14, that could impose targeted sanctions on senior Cambodian officials and cut the country’s access to preferential trade terms.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in military fatigues in a file photo. Photo: Government Handout

“I will work closely with Congress to advance US interests in Cambodia, promoting democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms; building on the strong support the United States enjoys among the Cambodian public; and strengthening cooperation on our vision for the Indo-Pacific,” Murphy told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in December.

Murphy was first nominated for the post in August by US President Donald Trump to replace the outgoing ambassador, William Heidt, who served three years in the position during a tumultuous period for bilateral ties.

But delays in the Senate and a government shutdown in late 2018 meant Murphy’s nomination was returned to Trump and resubmitted to the Senate in early January. In early April, it was favorably advanced to the Senate’s executive calendar by the chamber’s Committee on Foreign Relations.

On June 14, the Senate voted to confirm David Stilwell, a former Air Force general and director of the China Strategic Focus Group at the US Indo-Pacific Command Headquarters, as the new deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, replacing Murphy in the role.

Sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity say that Murphy’s confirmation had to wait until his replacement in the State Department’s Bureau for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was also confirmed.

If nomination proceedings go smoothly as expected, Murphy could arrive in Cambodia as the new US ambassador early next month, the sources say. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh said it does not comment on pending nominations in response to Asia Times’ request for comment.

“Patrick is a terrific nominee for the position. He has a distinguished record of service, is very familiar with Southeast Asia and knows US foreign policy in the region extremely well,” outgoing ambassador Heidt wrote last August in a statement posted on the US Embassy’s Facebook page.

W Patrick Murphy at a press event in Phnom Penh in 2017. Photo: Twitter

Murphy, who speaks Burmese, Cantonese and French, served as deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires in Thailand between 2013 and 2016, and as acting special representative and policy coordinator for Myanmar from 2012 to 2013.

The diplomatic transition comes as tensions mount between Washington and Beijing, not only in their bilateral trade dispute, which shows no signs of ebbing, but also in a rising rivalry for influence and position in Southeast Asia.

Murphy, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, resource economist at the World Wildlif, and graduate of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), isn’t necessary cut from the same realpolitik cloth as Trump’s other top Asia wonks.

The newly appointed Stilwell is widely seen as a China hawk. His installation at the State Department means that Trump’s three key officials on Asia – including ex-journalist Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asian affairs on the American National Security Council, and Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs – are all in line with Trump’s tough stance towards Beijing.

(Murphy retweeted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s June 4 tweet saying “We honor the heroes of the Chinese people who bravely stood up 30 years ago in Square to demand their rights. Those events still stir our conscience, and the conscience of freedom-loving people around the world.”)

Analysts say that Washington is paying especially close attention to Cambodian affairs compared with other Southeast Asian countries as Phnom Penh has arguably emerged as Beijing’s most loyal ally in Asia.

In particular, recent US State and Defense Department reports have stressed that Washington is highly concerned about speculation that China aims to build a naval base on Cambodia’s southern coastline.

Recent satellite imagery depicting an airport runway in Cambodia’s remote Koh Kong province is long enough to support Chinese military reconnaissance, fighter, and bomber aircraft. Source: War on Rocks/EO Browser/Twitter

In 2017, Phnom Penh cancelled joint military exercises with the US, known as Angkor Sentinel, and has since instead bolstered its military cooperation with China.

Beijing, which has been Cambodia’s main source of aid and investment for much of the past decade, has also promised to make up for any financial losses that might arise from US and EU sanctions. More important, perhaps, Beijing has recently said it would defend Cambodia against any Western political or military pressure.

“China will support the decision of the Cambodian government in resisting any intimidation or force from the West,” Wang Tianxiang, deputy director at the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Division of Southeast Asian Affairs, told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper on June 13.

“Many Western countries will ask Cambodia to do something [in return] when giving assistance. They will ask Cambodia to be more democratic, more open, to respect human rights and release opposition political personalities,” he added. “But China has a philosophy that we should let the Cambodian people decide their own matters.”

While Washington threatens trade reprisals, it has also left the door open to improved relations. US officials have held talks with the Cambodian military in recent months, and analysts suggest that Washington views improvements in military-to-military relations as one avenue for resetting ties.

Best of friends: Xi Jinping (L) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on December 21, 2009. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) toast in Phnom Penh in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“The United States promotes a free and open Indo-Pacific where nations are sovereign, strong and prosperous,” Michael Newbill, chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Cambodia, told Asia Times earlier this month.

“We will not resume full military cooperation with Cambodia,” he continued, “until the Cambodian government makes substantial progress on increasing the political space and restoring full democracy, including by dropping all charges against Kem Sokha and allowing civil society and media to operate independently.”

Murphy’s arrival could be attended by an escalation in Cambodia’s political standoff, with exiled CNRP officials, including the party’s acting president Sam Rainsy, repeatedly promising in recent months to return to the country even if it means arrest.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is thought to have irked his Japanese hosts last month when while speaking at a conference in Tokyo he reiterated that he is “waging war” against the exiled Sam Rainsy, whom the leader referred to as a “dog that I need to destroy.” He said that he would continue to “fight” the dissolved and oppressed opposition party.

Another round of arrests or abuses against the opposition would almost certainly push the US towards a more punitive response than implemented to date, especially with the democracy-promoting Murphy as its top diplomat in Phnom Penh.

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