The US Embassy in Phnom Penh. Photo: Wikipedia

As is widely known, in 1975, the United States abandoned the government of Cambodian prime minister Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge took power. What is less known is that at the time, then-freshman senator Joseph Biden supported the evacuation of the Americans from Vietnam and Cambodia.

On April 25, 1975, the Americans exited Cambodia. Former prime minister Sirik Matak Sisowath, who refused to leave and was killed by the Khmer Rouge days later, famously remarked: “I have only committed the mistake of believing in you [the Americans].”

While critics have said that now-President Biden’s recent Afghanistan policy was ad hoc and not well thought out, it is much the same as what his approach to Cambodia was in the 1970s.

The Biden administration’s recent sanctions on Cambodia must be viewed in this historical context. This action reflects Biden’s mindset. It is based on misapplying the Afghanistan paradigm to an incomparable situation.

Exploited by stronger powers

Now an independent and democratic country, Cambodia was used as a pawn in Cold War politics. This includes America’s secret bombings of suspected communist bases and supply lines in Cambodia starting in 1969.

The post-World War II Cambodian government was first a French-centric colony, followed by a US-centric period, then a China-centric period, then a Vietnam- centric period, and now arguably is reverting back to a China-centric period. It is like a ping-pong ball. None of this was or is inevitable and reflects a misunderstanding of Cambodian politics.

A former French colony, Cambodia gained independence in 1953 under King Norodom Sihanouk. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated the throne to his father and was the head of government for 15 years in the “Sihanouk Era.”

After World War II, the US provided economic support to Cambodia.

From 1960-1970, Norodom Sihanouk was prime minister. Sihanouk long had ties to China. The Sihanouk and Sisowath families are two of the eligible royal families in Cambodia. In May 1965, Cambodia broke diplomatic relations with the US. Sihanouk wanted to be neutral during the Vietnam War.

In 1970, the US supported the coup against Sihanouk, who fled to Beijing and later supported the Khmer Rouge, and the post-coup Khmer Republic under Lon Nol. The US made a loan of $278 million to the Lon Nol government, an amount Washington is now claiming has doubled to $500 million. Recently, the Biden administration demanded repayment of this loan.

From 1975-1979, the US condemned Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea regime.

In the Cambodia-Vietnam War of 1979, Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from power and installed a new government of which Hun Sen was a part.

In 1985, Hun Sen became prime minister. At only 33, he was the youngest prime minister in the world and now is the longest serving, for 36 years. Prior to that, at age 26, he had been the youngest foreign minister in the world.

In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia.

In 1991, the warring factions in Cambodia agreed to a ceasefire.

From 1992-1993, the country was under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. In my opinion, UNTAC was a successful transition to democracy and kept the peace. In 1992, significantly, the US ended an economic embargo of Cambodia and, in 1994, opened a diplomatic mission in Phnom Penh.

US alliance with Hun Sen makes sense

Since 1997, when a joint premiership with Norodom Ranariddh came to an end, Hun Sen has been the sole prime minister of Cambodia.

The reality is that Hun Sen is a perfect ally for the US. His eldest son Hun Manet, whom he recently endorsed as his successor, is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Hun Sen is part of an emerging democracy that is free-market capitalist. It is one of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is historically (though less so recently) pro-Western and a political bloc that China is not part of.

Under Hun Sen, Cambodia established a stock market. The World Bank says Cambodia has the most open foreign-direct-investment regime in ASEAN while Thailand has the most restrictive. The US dollar is accepted in Cambodia alongside the official currency, the riel.

China and Cambodia

But then, history brought us to November 12, 2021, when the Biden administration announced an arms embargo against Cambodia because of allegations of growing Chinese military influence and Beijing’s “refurbishment” of the Ream Naval Base.

Since the US is not an important arms supplier to Cambodia, it is a pointless policy that comes at the same time as America’s boycott of China’s Olympics, another “paper tiger” that reflects more weakness than strength.

Hun Sen’s reaction to the embargo was to use the Afghan analogy. Even before the embargo, on September 12, Hun Sen said the situation in Afghanistan evoked memories of when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975.

Cambodia could and should be a key ally of the US. But first the US has to understand how Hun Sen views the world.

During the period of Vietnamese control, Cambodia lost a lot of land area to Vietnam. Such was the price of Vietnam’s occupation in the 1980s and also continuing into the 1990s. China provides a counterbalance to Vietnam’s threat to and incursions on Cambodian sovereignty and land area. The US is not offering to protect Cambodia from Vietnam whereas China is. So the US is not giving Cambodia any choice.

This is different from Thailand, which has never faced aggression from China or Vietnam because it is viewed as being under the security umbrella of the US. In 2003, under then-US president George W Bush, Thailand was named a key non-NATO ally along with Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea and Tunisia.

Hun Sen is the ideal leader to have constructive relations with China, Vietnam and the US, the three countries that have influenced Cambodia’s postwar politics. Biden is still stuck in the “Afghanistan thinking” that has roots in his leading role in America’s evacuation of Cambodia in 1975. In fact, he owes a debt to Cambodia.

Biden needs to recognize that Cambodia under Hun Sen will in 2022 hold the chairmanship of ASEAN, which is a political and economic competitor of China and is largely made up of democratic countries. He is a masterly politician who seeks to be a key ally of the US, a country that in 2006 opened a large new modern embassy compound next to Wat Phnom.

Biden needs to build bridges with Cambodia and spend time with Hun Sen. Hun Sen is a “self-made man,” a poor soldier who rose to became prime minister. He is a nationalist who Biden needs to understand only wants to protect his country from numerous external threats. There are valid reasons for what he is doing.

Proudly independent

The premise of the Biden embargo that Cambodia is under Chinese military control is false. Cambodia is not a puppet state of China or any country.

The preamble to the Cambodian constitution of 1993 (revised in 2008) begins, “We, the people of Cambodia, being the heirs of a great civilization, a prosperous, powerful, large and glorious nation whose prestige radiated like a diamond.”

Article 1 states: “The Kingdom of Cambodia shall be an independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned country” (emphasis added).

Anyone who knows Hun Sen knows that he is no one’s puppet. He is a nationalist who will make whatever alliances are necessary to protect Cambodia’s independence. He knows that Cambodia needs to have good relations with China, Vietnam, and the United States.

Note from the above history that in 1992 the United States’ first move was ending an embargo against Cambodia. Imposing a new embargo on a friendly country now is a step backwards. The US in fact is considered by Cambodians to be a worthy model for their country and for Hun Sen’s government.

Instead of this stupid embargo based on the “tempest in a teapot” that is Ream Naval Base, Biden should, first, write off the United States’ contentious $500 million debt and, second, name Cambodia as a key non-NATO ally. Cambodia could then rest assured that, like Thailand, which is under no threat, it can count on US protection and not become another Lon Nol government or Afghanistan, which are the ghosts of Biden’s past.

Christopher Beres

Christopher Beres is a lawyer who has represented Cambodia in international litigation. He holds a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.