Pompeo stressed in his remarks that the United States was not asking governments to choose sides in times of increased competition between Washington and Beijing. File photo from AFP

The soap opera that is contemporary US-Cambodian relations continues to deliver surprising plot twists. This follows the uproar created by a late-July article in The Wall Street Journal that reported a Chinese-Cambodian agreement for the establishment of a Chinese military base in the kingdom.

Prime Minister Hun Sen kicked off last week by declaring that Cambodia had purchased US$40 million worth of Chinese weapons and was quoted in The Phnom Penh Post urging the American government “to freeze assets belong(ing) to ‘corrupt’ officials even before the Cambodia Democracy Act 2019 passed into law.”

Tensions subsequently rose when the US Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement on July 30 regarding the state of democracy in Cambodia:

“Today, the US government notes the one-year anniversary of deeply flawed national elections in Cambodia. That vote was neither free nor fair, and it failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people. The elections excluded the country’s principle opposition party and further eroded the country’s achievements in promoting political reconciliation and economic growth since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. We call on the government to take tangible actions to restore democracy, including dropping all charges against Kem Sokha and other political prisoners, and ending the practice of using baseless, politically motivated charges to harass its citizens. All in Cambodia should be able to exercise their rights to express their views freely and to assemble peacefully, and for citizens to take part in the conduct of public affairs.”

This created immediate uproar on Cambodian social media and outrage in the government. According to a Reuters report, senior government spokesman Phay Siphan stated: “Although we are friends, if these officials don’t like Cambodia, they should pack up and leave. Let me be clear: We don’t welcome you.” The Cambodian Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded official response arguing that the embassy’s statement was “a flagrantly aggressive move in violation of the United Nations Charter and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961.” Relations appeared to have officially bottomed out – but nothing in US-Cambodian relations is ever so simple.

Two days later in Laos, the US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) held its 12th ministerial meeting, which was attended by Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn. In a surprising move in light of what was going on back home, the foreign minister made an overwhelmingly positive statement about both the LMI and US-Cambodian relations. He declared Cambodia’s strong support for the initiative, highlighted that Cambodia was “proud” to co-chair (with the United States) the LMI’s Human Development and Connectivity pillar, and noted that the Royal Government was looking forward to “collaborating closely with the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.”

Meanwhile, later that day, in Washington, Patrick Murphy – after almost a year since his nomination by the White House – was finally confirmed as the new US ambassador to Cambodia. He is now expected to take up his duties in Phnom Penh in September. Murphy’s appointment could, perhaps, bring a new measure of stability to the relationship between the two nations, although the achievement of stability will require concessions on both sides.

Ending the week at the ASEAN-US ministerial meeting held in Laos, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to paper over deepening cracks by stating that: “Cambodia refuted reports that it is allowing a Chinese military installation to be built on its territory. The United States welcomes Cambodia’s strong defense of its national sovereignty, and we encourage other nations in the region to follow Cambodia’s lead in protecting it.” The not-so-subtle dig at Beijing would also have had significant impact on views of the United States in Cambodian official circles.

While Pompeo did not deny the claims made in The Wall Street Journal report nor address the fresh controversy as to the state of democracy in Cambodia, his statement has been well received by Cambodian government officials and local analysts in Phnom Penh who broadly see it as attempting to reset relations after the last two weeks of intense controversy.

Pompeo stressed in his remarks that the United States, in the context of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, was not asking governments to choose sides in times of increased competition between Washington and Beijing for regional dominance. Moreover, he strongly praised the recent statement by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on “ASEAN centrality.” The document provides a certain level of diplomatic cover to governments facing pressure to toe the Chinese line or keep the United States happy, although it is questionable in terms of its efficacy in light of ASEAN’s inherent organizational weaknesses.

While Pompeo’s statement is certainly a positive development, the growing consensus among diplomats, government officials, and analysts in Phnom Penh is that, in the words of one foreign diplomat, “History is repeating itself.” Cambodia finds itself in the same position that it did during the Cold War, suffering the consequences of the struggle between two giant powers.

Increasingly the dynamic of US-Cambodia relations can be described as “bipolar” in the psychological sense of the term. We are seeing statements of deep friendship and collaboration one day, and condemnation the next – from both sides.

Deeper, institutionalized mechanisms for building trust and regular forums for the exchange of views are urgently needed if a genuine reset of the relationship is to be achieved and the current cycle of outrage-reconciliation-outrage is to be brought to an end.

Failing that, nothing resembling equilibrium will be achieved and Cambodia will remain caught up in the competition for power. This will only result in both Cambodia and the US losing out in the medium to long term.

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