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

Last week, the United States slapped an arms embargo on Cambodia. Most commentary has focused on the fact that it was a “symbolic” move by Washington, another way for the US to express its opposition to Cambodia’s increasingly close ties to Beijing.

That, and the consistent US allegations that Phnom Penh could allow Chinese troops to be stationed on Cambodian soil, with the Ream naval base the suspected location. 

The embargo came a month after two senior Cambodian military officials – including Cambodia’s navy commander, Tea Vinh, the brother of Defense Minister Tea Banh – were sanctioned over alleged corrupt dealings over the Ream naval base’s redevelopment. 

Prime Minister Hun Sen stated afterwards that no US official would be allowed to visit the base, although US defense attaché Marcus Ferrara cut short his visit to the base in June after he was denied access to several areas.

Cambodia has not directly bought US arms or munitions since 1973. Hun Sen’s reaction that his armed forces should warehouse or destroy whatever US arms are in the country was, itself, a symbolic gesture.

Importantly, though, it wasn’t just an arms embargo imposed on Cambodia by the US State Department. The Commerce Department the same day also imposed corollary, and more complicated, restrictions on Cambodia importing US-made technology and hardware that can have military capabilities. 

These were not sanctions, but increased the scale of restrictions on certain exports to Cambodia. 

The move will restrict Cambodia’s access to “dual-use” items that can have military as well as civilian use, an expansive list that includes nuclear-related goods but also software and hardware, such as radar and cables, that the US deems to have possible military applications. 

Hun Manith, the prime minister’s second-eldest son, runs the General Department of Research and Intelligence. Photo: Supplied

Military intelligence targetted

This isn’t a blanket ban, but the US Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) now has a “presumption of denial,” meaning the BIS must first approve licenses for import. 

As part of this, the US singled out Cambodia’s military intelligence unit, the General Department of Research and Intelligence (GDRI), which since 2015 has been run by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s second-eldest son, Hun Manith. 

As a result, Cambodia’s intelligence unit has now been added to a list of seven other intelligence agencies deemed a risk to US national security interests, a list that includes Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau and Syria’s Military Intelligence Service. 

Washington isn’t calling Cambodia a “rogue state,” but its addition to the list of nefarious states certainly implies that Cambodia is roguish in US eyes – and a threat to US security interests. 

“The United States has determined that expanded Chinese military influence in Cambodia and corruption and human rights abuses committed by Cambodian government actors, including the Cambodian military, are contrary to US national security and foreign policy interests,” reads a statement released last week by the BIS. 

There’s some debate about whether this is intended to merely further restrict imports for Cambodia’s domestic use. 

The Commerce Department’s rules are “end-use and end-user restrictions, on exports and re-exports to Cambodia, and in-country transfers within Cambodia, of sensitive items subject to the Export Administration Regulations,” according to a BIS statement. 

A separate BIS explainer noted that the restrictions on imports could apply to Cambodia’s military police as well as to military hospitals.

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh has close ties with China. Photo: Facebook

High profile target

It is important to notice that Chau Phirun, director-general of the Defense Ministry’s Material and Technical Services Department, was one of the two Cambodian military officials sanctioned last month. 

Ostensibly, this was because the US alleged he “conspired to profit from activities regarding the construction and updating of Ream Naval Base facilities,” as the State Department put it. 

However, Phirun’s position is directly involved in the procurement and delivery of military material, a role that gives him some authority over the import and export of products now restricted.

And he has been a key military node in relations with China. Phirun was part of a delegation that traveled with Defense Minister Tea Banh to China in 2019 to sign an agreement to improve the Cambodian and Chinese militaries’ joint exercises.

The new US measure also mean that third countries now cannot sell to Cambodia restricted products they have purchased from the US.

Additionally, and more importantly, Cambodia now cannot re-export the same goods to countries that are also designated under the same restrictions, such as China. 

The restrictions apply to exporters, re-exporters, or “transferors” in Cambodia who have knowledge “that the item is intended, entirely or in part, for a ‘military end-use,’ or ‘military end-user,’ in Burma, Cambodia, China, the Russian Federation, or Venezuela.” 

This, said Bradley J Murg, Distinguished Senior Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, was most likely the real intention of the US restrictions last week.

Washington doesn’t want Cambodia to be used as a re-export hub through which China can bypass US restrictions to import dual-use, US-made goods.

A US Defense Department report this year noted: “Beijing’s [Military-Civil Fusion] Strategy includes objectives to develop and acquire advanced dual-use technology.” 

It added: “The PRC appropriates foreign technology through foreign direct investment, overseas acquisitions, legal technology imports …” 

The business advisory issued by the State Department against Cambodia last month explicitly urged “caution regarding re-exports of items subject to the [Export Administration Regulations] from Cambodia to parties in Burma and China that are subject to military or military intelligence end-user or end-use controls.”

For years, the State Department was the driving force behind Washington’s attempts to make Cambodia mend its ways. Now, the Treasury and Commerce Department are also getting involved, an indication the US is expanding its toolset to pressure for change and to demonstrate how seriously it takes Cambodia’s ties with China.