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 narrative surrounding US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Phnom Penh last week was that Washington eyes a possible reset of relations with Cambodia.

Even a recent article from Cambodia’s state-owned news agency, which long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen shared online, played up the rapprochement hype by stating it is “time for the US and Cambodia, in China’s shadow, to reset ties.”

Sherman, the most senior US official to visit Cambodia in years, arrived in Phnom Penh amid a quick-hop tour across Asia. She held a one-on-one meeting with Hun Sen, at which she reportedly appealed for Cambodia to maintain an “independent and balanced foreign policy.” 

Left unsaid was how the Biden administration reckons it can succeed when the previous Donald Trump administration attempted the same to no avail amid rising Chinese influence in the Southeast Asian nation. Nor is it clear how Washington defines “independent and balanced”, though there are clear areas where the US feels prevailing policy leans in China’s favor.

The main contentious issue surrounds allegations reported in media and denied by officials that Cambodia will allow Chinese troops to station at the country’s Ream Naval Base situated on the Gulf of Siam.

It has been lost on few in Washington that China has recently been allowed to develop several facilities at the base just months after US-funded facilities were demolished. 

By allowing Beijing more control over the strategically situated naval base, which could provide China a new southern flank in the contested South China Sea, the US perceives Phnom Penh is dangerously close to adopting a full-fledged pro-China foreign policy. 

Cambodia, on the other hand, argues that it is the sovereign and independent right of its government to decide what happens on its soil, including at its military bases. 

In an interview with the English-language Phnom Penh Post newspaper ahead of Sherman’s visit, Defense Minister Tea Banh stated: “It’s Cambodia who will use this [naval] base and it’s Cambodia who develops this land.”

A Cambodian naval officer salutes at the Ream Naval Base in a file photo. Image: Twiiter

Speaking at the recent International Conference on the Future of Asia, Hun Sen reiterated the views of the Cambodian government: “Honestly speaking, if not China, who else can I rely on? Let’s speak the truth.”

The major faultline in US-Cambodia relations was revealed in early 2017 when Cambodia unilaterally suspended joint military drills with the US and replaced them with annual training exercises with Chinese forces. 

Later that year, the Cambodian government kicked out a US State Department-funded democracy organization and closed down an American-owned newspaper. 

Then, in November 2017, the government forcibly dissolved the country’s only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on the spurious accusation that it was plotting a US-backed coup. 

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since 1979, went on to win all 125 parliamentary seats at the 2018 general election, which the White House described as unfree and unfair. 

Washington would have probably tolerated Cambodia’s descent into a de facto one-party state – it has accustomed itself to Thailand’s military-influenced rule and Vietnam’s communist control – if rising authoritarianism in Phnom Penh didn’t coincide with its lurch towards Beijing. 

Cambodia’s dependency on China is complex, ranging from major inwards investment to Beijing’s soft-power training of Cambodian bureaucrats and journalists. China has also become the largest investor in Cambodia, with 43% of the US$3.6 billion in FDI received in 2019 coming from Beijing.

A China-Cambodia Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect last year, aims to grow annual bilateral trade to US$10 billion by 2023. Equally important, Beijing has become a major political defender of Hun Sen’s regime on the international stage. 

A Cambodian police official stands guard as students hold portraits of China's President Xi Jinping and King Norodom Sihamoni during Xi's arrival at the Phnom Penh international airport on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
A Cambodian police official stands guard as students hold portraits of China’s President Xi Jinping and King Norodom Sihamoni during Xi’s arrival at the Phnom Penh international airport, October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

In what has become a tug-of-war over Cambodia, Washington has simplified the matter by focusing primarily on whether Chinese troops will be allowed to be stationed on Cambodian soil.

In late 2018, then-US vice president Mike Pence wrote a personal letter to Hun Sen on the issue, which at the time was suggested to be a Chinese-built “tourism” development project in Koh Kong province. 

In 2019, accusations then turned to Chinese troops possibly being allowed access to the Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville Province, an accusation the Cambodian government has repeatedly denied.

If true, though, it would fundamentally change the security calculus in the South China Sea, where China is locked in disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Ream Naval Base access would bring Chinese forces closer to territory disputed with Malaysia and Indonesia, and also encircle Vietnam from the south. 

Although Phnom Penh has feigned ignorance about why Washington is so “obsessed” with the issue, the pro forma denials have only added fuel to the diplomatic fire. Last year, Cambodian authorities moved to tear down two US-funded facilities at the naval base in the name of renovation even though the structures were relatively new.  

Earlier this year, it was revealed that new China-funded facilities were being built at the same site, with construction happening at a “breakneck pace”, according to a report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“The breakneck pace of construction at Ream, lack of transparency, and shifting explanations from Cambodian officials continue to fuel suspicions that the upgrades there are intended for China’s benefit as much as Cambodia’s,” AMTI reported.

It was against this backdrop that Sherman arrived in Phnom Penh, where she held talks with Cambodian civil society actors as well as Kem Sokha, the detained leader of the CNRP who was charged with treason in 2017. 

She also met with Hun Sen in what she characterized as a “candid” exchange.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) greeting US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (R) during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP / Handout / US Embassy Phnom Penh

On the face of it, Sherman largely continued with the two-track agenda of the previous Trump administration, seeking the Cambodian government to open up space for the political opposition and close down geopolitical space for Chinese interests. 

Sherman’s visit may point to the Biden administration’s willingness to engage with Hun Sen’s government on a more personal basis. 

Yet the previous administration shifted from confrontation to dialogue with Phnom Penh when W Patrick Murphy, who previously served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was installed as the new US ambassador to Cambodia in mid-2019.

That engagement may or may not have contributed to Phnom Penh’s decision to cancel this year’s “Golden Dragon” joint military exercises, originally scheduled to extend over two weeks in March, due damages wrought by Covid-19 and last year’s heavy flooding.

On the one hand, Phnom Penh may believe the Ream Naval Base issue gives it leverage over Washington. On the other hand, it has backed Phnom Penh into a corner as Hun Sen has staked Cambodia’s sovereignty and regional standing on the issue.

Last year, former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan suggested that Cambodia and Laos should be kicked out of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc because of their perceived dependency on China. 

Yet if Phnom Penh suddenly announced that it would not take Chinese funds to develop the naval base and Americans would be allowed to freely inspect the site, the pronouncement would have almost no impact on Cambodia’s long-term economic and political reliance on China. 

Some believe American engagement with Cambodia should focus more on economics, thereby weakening Cambodia’s trade and investment dependence on China. 

A report by Cambodia’s state media outlet Agence Kampuchea Presse on Tuesday night, which didn’t mention the more controversial issues spoken about during Sherman’s visit, noted that she had discussed additional investment as well as renegotiating Cambodia’s historic debt to the US. 

The US$600 million debt, incurred by the US-backed Lon Nol coup regime of the 1970s, is a perennially contentious issue for Hun Sen’s government. Hun Sen’s personal assistant, Eang Sophalleth, said on Tuesday evening that the premier wants the US to convert 70% of the debt into new development assistance to Cambodia. 

A woman working at a money exchange shows 500 Cambodian riel notes to photographer in central Phnom Penh March 12, 2011. The much delayed stock exchange regulator Securities and Exchange Commission of Cambodia (SECC) said that all prices of securities will be quoted in local currency riel. Cambodia is highly dollarized and that many foreign investors want to see US dollars quoted in the upcoming bourse. REUTERS/Samrang Pring (CAMBODIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR2JSDU
Cambodia still owes the US $600 million debts dating back to the Vietnam War era. Image: Agencies

Washington has not spoken publicly about the debt issue since Sherman’s visit, but the previous Trump administration rejected similar appeals for debt relief.  

For others, Biden should prioritize trying to restore democracy in Cambodia. Indeed, there are concerns that Washington has not acted sufficiently to punish Hun Sen’s democratic backsliding.

Washington notably failed to join the European Union in imposing trade sanctions due to concerns such punitive actions would only push Phnom Penh closer to Beijing.

If the Biden administration is serious about forging a bilateral reset, it will require nuanced and often quiet diplomacy. It will also have to understand that it is not wholly in the interests of Hun Sen’s regime to engage in such a reset – at least not for now. 

It is widely believed that Hun Sen will offer clemency to Kem Sokha in return for him either quitting politics or fronting an enfeebled and uncompetitive opposition party, which would return a sliver of democracy to Cambodia ahead of next year’s local elections and 2023’s general election.  

There is also the delicate issue of political succession. Hun Sen, 68, has vowed to remain at the helm for another decade, but he is purportedly preparing his eldest son Hun Manet, now the de-facto military chief, to succeed him. 

Ever since the break-up in 2017, Cambodia has shown little urgency in trying to reset ties with Washington. That’s likely because Hun Sen doesn’t think the time is right – or because America hasn’t yet offered him sufficient incentive to start peeling away from China’s largesse.