Cambodian naval personnel on boats berthed at a jetty at the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province on July 26, 2019, during a government-organized media tour. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The tearing down of another US-built facility at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base is one more jab of the thumb in the US government’s eye, a sign that Phnom Penh is either swaggeringly indifferent about American sensitivities or still doesn’t quite understand the risks.

The demolition of another US-built facility at the same base in September had the Pentagon once again expressing concerns that the Cambodian government would allow Chinese troops to station themselves on its soil, a major worry for the US and a development that would thrust Cambodia front-and-center of the US-China rivalry.

Phnom Penh claims these facilities are making way for new developments – not the best line given that the latest US-built facility to be demolished was just three years old – and that it hasn’t made any deals for military use with China. Clearly, the Cambodian government has little interest in tempering US concerns over China’s military role in the country. In fact, its latest decision shows a profound lack of care (even hubris) about how its actions are understood in Washington.  

Phnom Penh, some say, is wedded to the belief that the US won’t take any major punitive actions against it because, as the theory goes, doing so would only push Cambodia closer into China’s orbit, something the US wants to avoid.

The analyst Bradley Murg called this the “Incentivization Argument” in an essay last month, writing that the US-Cambodia “relationship risks becoming locked in a downward spiral with Incentivists in Cambodia advocating for and justifying a hard response to American actions without grasping the implications.”

Phnom Penh ought to be careful. While the majority of US policymakers are committed to engagement with Cambodia, there are some, I hear, who reckon that the country is already “lost to China” so any engagement is counterproductive, simply a waste of US funds that only benefits Cambodia’s ruling party and its Chinese backers. One hopes this opinion doesn’t become predominant, but Phnom Penh is doing little to dispel it, especially amid a change of power in Washington.

Indeed, the timing of the second demolition at the Ream Naval Base is suspect, coming while Washington is distracted. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also been conspicuously quiet about Joe Biden’s victory, not having offered his congratulations yet.

He was, after all, an early fan of Donald Trump, voicing his support before the 2016 ballot – although that support meant little as Phnom Penh “postponed” historic joint military exercises with the US just days before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, and subsequently began drilling instead with the Chinese military.

The US did react critically after Cambodia’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was forcibly dissolved and its leader arrested for treason in late 2017 on spurious charges of plotting a US-backed coup – a further thumb in the eye of Washington.

And the White House described the 2018 general election as “neither free nor fair and [that it] failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.”

Some aid was subsequently cut. The commander of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard was sanctioned that year over his role in historic rights abuses. A former military chief and ruling-party-connected tycoon were sanctioned this year, but not ostensibly for political issues.

But, in short, no punitive sanctions have been imposed on Hun Sen or his family, nor other senior figures involved in the creation of a one-party state. In fact, after mid-2019 the US attempted rapprochement with Phnom Penh for several months, including kind letters sent from Trump to Hun Sen this time last year.

Will US-Cambodia relations continue in an unstable, on-off manner? Biden is certainly expected to care more about human rights than Trump. “Human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy,” he declared during the campaign. Whether there is a profound re-ordering of an American values-led foreign policy waits to be seen. Some figures around Biden are certain to push for it.

US Senator Chris Coons, the original co-sponsor of the Cambodia Trade Act of 2019 that threatened to cut Cambodia’s trade privileges, is one of the potential candidates for secretary of state – and even if he doesn’t get that post, he is very close to Biden personally, occupying his former Delaware Senate seat.

Coons said in January 2019: “Countries that undermine democracy, ignore labor standards, disregard human rights, and fail to protect intellectual property should not enjoy special trade privileges. During his 34-year reign, Hun Sen has shown his disdain for the rule of law and basic freedoms in Cambodia.”

Phnom Penh, no doubt, has its fingers crossed that someone else, perhaps Susan Rice, another apparent candidate, takes this foreign-minister role.

The Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019, which would have asked the US president to impose sanctions on individuals responsible for acts to undermine democracy in Cambodia, passed the House of Representatives last year but stalled in the Senate.

But many of the co-sponsors, including Democrats Alan Lowenthal and Brad Sherman, won re-election last week. And it’s possible that both these bills could be returned to Congress next year, risking Cambodia’s place in America’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade scheme and leading to the potential imposition of tariffs on Cambodian goods.

(This would follow the European Union’s partial removal of Cambodia’s trade privileges this year.)

Indeed, there still seems bipartisan support for these bills and, with an administration more receptive to standing up for democracy and human rights, they could find executive support.

Clearly, US thinking about China is divided. On the one hand, there are many in Congress who would like to impose sanctions on the Phnom Penh regime. On the other, there’s great concern about China’s suzerainty in the region, and punishing Cambodia could make its near-embrace of Beijing intractable.

Under Trump, the latter took precedence. But if Biden were to cool the US rivalry with China (as many analyst think he will) and refocus America’s human-rights agenda, Phnom Penh might suffer.

Indeed, Biden’s advisers and likely cabinet members have sounded tough on China. Michele Flournoy, Biden’s likely pick as defense secretary, intimated this year in Foreign Affairs that if the US were to be able to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours,” it would prevent Beijing’s capture of the region.

Yet Biden’s advisers have also been keen to call for a more sustainable and nuanced rivalry with China, one that is less unyielding than Trump’s. Through “an approach that relies more on pressure from US allies, sanctions and other tools to shape Beijing’s behavior,” The Wall Street Journal reported this week.

Phnom Penh, having relied on Washington taking a “zero-sum” approach to competition with China, may find its position weakened if the Biden administration no longer pays heed to the new domino theory.  

A Biden administration raises other problems for Cambodia, too. Recall that Phnom Penh praised Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Cambodia wasn’t party to the trade pact and stood to lose economically as it would have boosted investment and trade with the US for its neighbors, especially Vietnam. “I can honestly say that I want the TPP to die,” Hun Sen said in late 2017.

If the US were to return to the TPP, as some think Biden will attempt, one imagines some US investment would be diverted away from Cambodia.

Also, because Biden will likely seek to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a multilateral footing, rather than Trump’s bilateral proclivity, that might also rankle with Phnom Penh if the regional bloc is pressured to take a more vocal position on global issues.

“Should a Biden administration demand ASEAN to take a firmer stand on issues like human rights … this would place regional states in an inconvenient position vis-à-vis their own strategic interests,” according to a recent article.

Indeed, a minor furor started last month when the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Bilahari Kausikan, suggested that Cambodia and Laos should be kicked out of the ASEAN bloc because their foreign policy is dominated by China. Phnom Penh, no doubt, recognizes this to be an unspoken opinion of some of its neighbors.

One imagines that EU diplomats may also start asking their new counterparts in the Biden administration why the US failed to support it when it partially removed Cambodia’s trade privileges this year. Biden, in an attempt to find support from the agriculture lobby, may be receptive if the USA Rice federation again pressures Washington to impose tariffs on Cambodian rice imports, as it did in July.

It is most probable that the Biden administration will maintain an “engagement” policy with Cambodia, but with caveats.

The US ambassador to Phnom Penh, W Patrick Murphy, a Trump appointee last year, will likely stay on during the first few years of the Biden administration. Aid and investment will still be offered. And the outgoing Trump administration has left its successor with useful tools, including the Mekong-US Partnership launched in September and the tens of billions in capital behind the new International Development Finance Corporation, a global investment fund.

Yet continued funding for Cambodia’s grassroots development and its private sector may be coupled with more pressure actually to make progress on democracy and human rights – whereas conditions for both have gone further downhill since last year.

In short, the Biden administration could wield both carrots and sticks over Cambodia. But if Phnom Penh reckons it can continue as normal, believing the US is happy to be kept at arm’s length to avoid “losing” Cambodia to China, it may be a costly mistake – similar to the one Hun Sen made when he assumed the EU would never cut Cambodia’s trade privileges.  

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.