U.S.-Cambodia relations at their ‘worst point,’ as China steps in to fill the void

"There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests."

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy, left, and U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt, right, at a press conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy, left, and U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt, right, at a press conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — The months-long battle of words and actions between the United States and Cambodia has grown significantly worse, as the Southeast Asian country continues its assault on democracy and U.S. influence in the region dwindles.

At a press conference Wednesday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy lamented Cambodia’s “backtrack” on democracy and urged the government to return its deteriorating political situation to normal, Reuters reported. Murphy’s comments come on the heels of last week’s announcement by the State Department to impose travel restrictions against Cambodian government officials and their families. The announcement appeared to be a long time coming. The White House ended support for Cambodia’s National Election Committee last month over doubts of the veracity of next year’s planned national elections. The European Union later followed suit.

All the while, the United States appears to be losing its sway in the region. Early this year, as part of his “America First” agenda, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), leaving behind a political vacuum for China to fill. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen praised Trump’s decision, telling the World Economic Forum in March that he wants TPP “to die is because it has the potential to break up [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries].”

Trump’s apparent plans to pivot away from the Obama-era focus on Asia as an area of strategic interest has heightened U.S.-Cambodian tensions at a critical time. Cambodia’s months of attacks on democracy have included the government’s removal of the National Democratic Institute; the silencing of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America; attempts to drive the Cambodia Daily newspaper out of business with a punitive $6.3 million tax bill; the imprisonment of opposition party leader Kem Sokha and the dissolving of Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP); and the harassment of journalists, activists, government critics, civil society organisations, and NGOs.


“Certainly [Trump] isn’t helping. He’s made a mess of things such that when Phnom Penh looks for a reason for some cockamamie logic, it need look no further than to quote or cite Trump for why they’re cracking down on the media etc.,” Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, told ThinkProgress in an email.

Hun Sen has cited Trump when defending anti-democratic actions that have drawn criticism.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan, himself a U.S. citizen after living in the country during the 1980s, told Reuters that the U.S. decision to impose visa restrictions over what he called the legal actions taken to close the country’s major opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), before elections next year “shows that the United States is destroying democracy.”

“The CNRP are not politicians, they are rebels and terrorists,” he said, repeating government efforts to discredit the legal position of the opposition.

U.S. embassy spokesman David Josar said the names of those affected by the ban were confidential, but stressed that the consular section was processing requests as normal “with the exception of those affected by these new entry restrictions.”


The State Department statement warned of further action “as necessary” before praising the United States’ “close and enduring ties” with the Cambodian government. Throughout the present situation, the U.S. embassy has continued to announce funding for various projects in the country, from supporting the curation of artifacts from Khmer Rouge torture, to $350,000 for the conservation of 10th‐century Phnom Bakheng temple near Angkor Wat.

Hun Sen vowed in September to stay in power for 10 more years, extending his reign over the Southeast Asian country to more than 40 years and, since then, he has taken a series of steps to ensure the accuracy of his prediction — at the expense of what stood for Cambodia’s democratic and legal institutions.

These actions were in apparent response to the large election gains in June by the CNRP, which took 43 percent of the votes in local elections and prompted a rattled Hun Sen to launch a campaign against the CNRP and institutions seen as supporting or aiding efforts to replace him and the CPP.

Given the public demonstration of falling support for the CPP, Hun Sen’s sabre-rattling is to be expected. Over the decades he has been in power, he has built up a system of patronage and support amid the country’s civilian and military elite that has guaranteed fealty, if not loyalty. The country of 15 million people has an estimated 3,000 military generals, a fact rooted in Hun Sen’s need to appease, rather than for any military purpose.

Decades of U.S. distrust facilitate Cambodia’s pivot to China

Rising anti-American rhetoric from Hun Sen, senior government officials, and government-aligned media has coincided with Cambodia’s continued movement towards China and away from the United States. The State Department action was long-expected, experts say.


Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said in an email interview that the increasingly strained relations between the United States and Cambodia was largely the responsibility of the Cambodian government.

“U.S.-Cambodia relations are at their worst point since July 1997, when Washington froze aid to the Cambodian government after Hun Sen’s bloody factional coup de force,” Strangio told ThinkProgress.

That coup saw Hun Sen oust political rival Prince Ranariddh and his royalist FUNCIPEC party. The party, which won no seats in the recent local elections compared to the CNRP’s 489 seats, has just been handed 41 of their seats in the National Assembly, after swearing fealty to the CPP.

Through Hun Sen’s frequent speeches — which now include weekly events at garment factories  whose workers are associated with labor unions and the CNRP — and the CPP’s near total control of media channels, a long-active propaganda machine has been able to operate domestically that is virtually unopposed.

CPP-aligned TV channels have daily carried the same government-produced video, purporting to prove the CNRP was a puppet of the U.S government, and linking the CNRP and the United States to political protests in Europe and the Middle East — grouped together as “color revolutions.” Throughout, the video seeks to align Cambodian democracy with far more established examples, and claims tacit U.S. support in undermining such legitimate democracies across the world, including Cambodia’s.

This claim of a U.S. assault on Cambodian democracy is important for the CPP, as allegations that the party rigged the 2013 general election linger in the minds of opposition voters.

“[I]t’s important to remember that Cambodian democracy has only ever existed in the most superficial sense; elections have been held, but they have been successfully manipulated by the CPP,” said Strangio.

For former Khmer Rouge soldiers — which include Hun Sen and a number of senior government officials — America’s wartime action 40 years ago appears fresh in their minds. Unexploded ordnance from the U.S. bombing of suspected North Vietnamese camps in eastern Cambodia continue to be unearthed, and the issue of unpaid Cambodian debt from the era remains a contentious topic.

The Cambodian government’s actions in recent months have been emboldened by the continued support from China — through direct loans, a flood of foreign direct investment, and public approval of the actions. This has allowed Cambodia to shrug off U.S funding and its linked development goals and human rights requirements without fear of a drop in cash.

“China has played a central role in recent events in Cambodia,” said Strangio. “What China has done is give Hun Sen’s government the political and economic cover to cast off the pretense of democracy and rule in a more openly authoritarian way.”

The Chinese support is not new. China offered direct material support to Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period of 1975 to 1979, building an airport and renovating the railway line, in exchange for material goods such as rice and rubber. Cold-war politics in the 1980s saw China continue support for the Khmer Rouge, alongside the United States and ASEAN countries, against Vietnam-controlled Cambodia.

These days, Chinese altruism comes in exchange for Cambodian support of its claims in the South China Sea, and as an ally of ASEAN countries.

Yet the decision by the State Department, at least, has been met with applause by some. Deputy President of the CNRP Mu Sochua, who fled Cambodia to avoid threats of arrest, told the Phnom Penh Post that the U.S. move was “very significant.”

“The U.S.A. has heard the call from the 3 million voters who voted for positive change. High ranking officials and their family members travel regularly to western countries. They will feel the pressure, in particular those with assets and children going to universities [in] the USA.”

As Cambodia gears up for the July national elections that are almost certain to keep Hun Sen in power through a ballot box neither free nor fair, the discord between Cambodia and concerned countries is bound to heat up. 

What is uncertain, however, is exactly what role China will play, or how the diplomatic situation will escalate.

Sophal Ear remains philosophical on the topic. “One must remember, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.”