Cambodian navy personnel on a jetty at the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province, a controversial installation in US-Cambodia relations. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

If Cambodia wants to receive US$85 million in new funding from the United States next year, it will need to “assert its sovereignty against interference by the People’s Republic of China,” an escalation of US opposition to Cambodia’s close friendship with Beijing, but a move that may simplify bilateral ties. 

The Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 intones that the US Secretary of State – likely to be Antony Blinken once the incoming Joe Biden administration takes office in mid-January – must judge whether Cambodia has maintained neutrality over the Ream Naval Base and the Chinese-backed Dara Sakor development project in Koh Kong province before the funds are released. 

US officials have alleged since 2017 that Phnom Penh is prepared to allow Chinese troops to be stationed at either of these locations, claims the Cambodian government vehemently rejects and which would be in violation of the country’s neutralist constitution.   

Somewhat cryptically, another US condition requires Phnom Penh to “strengthen regional security and stability, particularly regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea.” 

Phnom Penh must also “cease violence and harassment against civil society and the political opposition in Cambodia, and dismiss any politically motivated charges against those who criticize the government,” a reference to the marked political deterioration in Cambodia since 2017 and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s creation of a de-facto one-party state. 

For the most part, these conditions are entirely symbolic. Funding for education, healthcare, environmental protection and civil society, the majority of the US aid package, won’t be affected by these caveats.

Meanwhile, Phnom Penh won’t mind too much if it misses out on the rest of the funds, which are relatively limited in value.   

Naturally, the terms of America’s funding have frustrated those in Cambodia who already regard the US as trying to interfere in the country’s own affairs.

French Ambassador to Cambodia Eva Nguyen Binh (L) shakes hands with former opposition leader Kem Sokha (R) at his home in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2019, where he remains under house arrest. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The burden on Phnom Penh

“Cambodia reserves its own rights as a sovereign nation to safeguard its own national interests,” Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesperson, told local media after publication of the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021. 

However, the symbolic importance of the conditions are twofold. For starters, they explicitly put the burden onto Phnom Penh, revealing that the Cambodian government has more agency in these matters than it lets on. 

The narrative Phnom Penh puts forward contends that Cambodia has almost no agency at all: bilateral relations with the US deteriorated because of American actions alone, leaving Phnom Penh aghast and victimized.

In this retelling of history, US-Cambodia relations only started to worsen in late 2017 after Washington strongly rebuked the forced dissolution of the country’s only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on spurious charges of plotting a coup.  

They deteriorated further in 2018 after the White House rejected the 2018 general election, where the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ran effectively uncontested and won all 125 parliamentary seats, as unfree and unfair. Washington thereafter cut some aid and threatened sanctions, which haven’t been forthcoming.  

Amid this, Phnom Penh says, the US took a mostly hostile attitude towards Cambodia only because of its close economic connections with China, making Cambodia an innocent proxy in the superpower rivalry. Since at least 2016, China has been the largest trading partner, investor and donor to Cambodia. 

An alternative reading of history contends that not only was the deterioration of US-Cambodia relations instigated by Phnom Penh, but the Cambodian side also holds the cards to mend these ties.  

In early 2017, months before the CNRP’s dissolution, Phnom Penh unilaterally canceled its traditional joint-military exercises with the US after claiming that troops were needed to safeguard the upcoming local elections. But the drills have never resumed, and in 2018 Cambodia’s armed forces instead began training instead with the Chinese military. 

A supporter of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party paints over the party logo at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh on November 18, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

‘Color revolution’

Moreover, when the CNRP was forcibly dissolved in late 2017, the ruling party alleged that the United States was in league with the opposition party to launch a “color revolution” in Cambodia. 

Given that no evidence is likely to ever be put forward to prove this charge, the Cambodian government must have known that this needless accusation would weaken ties with the US.  

Phnom Penh also moved against US civil society groups, with the National Democratic Institute expelled from the country in August 2017 and the American-owned Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper, forced to close weeks later on suspect tax charges. The US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America were also targeted by authorities. 

Since then, except for promises and words, Phnom Penh has done nothing to alleviate US concerns that it is heading steadily into China’s military embrace. 

In recent months, two relatively new US-built facilities at the Ream Naval base were destroyed, and sources say the China Communications Construction Company, recently sanctioned by the US for building possible military installations on disputed features in the South China Sea, is now reconstructing facilities at the base. 

As well as putting the burden onto the Cambodian side, the conditions included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 also indicate what America wants to see happen.  

Some analysts argue that altering Cambodia’s foreign policy to suit America’s interests is a difficult task. In some cases this is true. 

By “strengthen[ing] regional security and stability, particularly regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” American officials presumably meant that Phnom Penh should cease opposing the Southeast Asia bloc’s efforts to develop a strong regional response against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. 

In 2012 and 2016, Cambodia vetoed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from issuing robust communiques against Chinese actions in these waters, where Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines contest disputed territory with Beijing.  

Ongoing crackdown

However, this will be hard to judge and depends on the absence of any action by Cambodia rather than a major about-face. 

Phnom Penh also won’t want to end its ongoing crackdown on critics and individuals allegedly tied to the now-banned CNRP. The ruling party clearly reckons that it needs to stamp out all dissent in order to stabilize politics before Prime Minister Hun Sen possibly steps down after 35 years in the job. 

And issues of human rights may become a bigger problem for US-Cambodia relations under the Biden administration, which has vowed to put more focus on international human rights than the outgoing Trump administration.

However, the chief problem for bilateral relations is trust over the China question. In American eyes, Phnom Penh has steadily since 2017 severed all military relations between the two countries, replacing them with a greater dependency on Chinese military association.

For Washington, Phnom Penh has failed to demonstrably back up its rhetorical claims of neutrality.

Rebuilding this trust will take time, but Phnom Penh could start with a few symbolic and relatively easy gestures: Commit to restarting joint military drills with the US; ask for talks with State Department and Pentagon officials not longer after Biden takes office; and postpone development at the Ream Naval base or put these projects out for open tender, allowing US-backed firms to compete. 

None of these actions would be difficult to enact, nor would they whatsoever come to the detriment of Cambodia’s finances or security – or even its national sovereignty. In fact, Cambodia’s military would benefit greatly if, for instance, it begins retraining with America’s armed forces.

Cambodian garment factory workers were hit hard by the partial withdrawal of EU trade privileges. Photo: Facebook

EU demands

Phnom Penh would only suffer, however, if it isn’t being honest. It would only face negative outcomes if China responds punitively against Cambodia if it improves military ties with the US, which would reveal Phnom Penh has far less neutrality and independence from Beijing than it claims it now has. 

As is the case regarding the European Union, which this year partially removed Cambodia’s trade privileges over its political deterioration, the US is also essentially asking Phnom Penh to revert to the situation as it was at the beginning of January 2017. 

For the EU, this means the reinstatement of the now-banned CNRP and an end to the political crackdown, pretty much the conditions of early 2017. For the US, this means returning to a similar political situation but also to closer security relations, again as was the case up until January 2017.  

Framed in this way, all the West wants is a return to the status quo ante, which Phnom Penh could feasibly conduct if its policymaking isn’t affected by Beijing’s desires. 

The change of administration in the US now presents the Cambodian government with a rare opportunity to rebuild trust, to make the symbolic gestures that Washington demands. 

Although the “sovereignty literalists” in Phnom Penh will claim that engaging in any policy favored by a foreign government is a violation of Cambodia’s national sovereignty, more realist officials recognize that a successful post-pandemic recovery will require improved relations with the West – and, not least, some stabilization to Cambodia’s foreign policy, which has an increasingly complicated domestic policy. 

Some may lambast the tone of American conditionality found in the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, but Phnom Penh now has a bullet-point list of demands from which it can discuss future policy. The ball is in Cambodia’s court, as it has been since 2017.