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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief

ABN # 65 648 097 123


United States Re-engages
Cambodia
November 30, 2019

Aun Chhengpor, Voice of America, Khmer Service:


I am working on a story about the recent attempt by Cambodia and the U.S. to mend
their bilateral ties that have been strained over the past few years. President Trump
wrote a letter to Hun Sen, Cambodian premier, and the latter wrote back.
I would like to seek your commentary to this story with the following questions.
Q1) How important is Cambodia, for the time being, in the eyes of U.S. strategic
thinkers?
ANSWER: Cambodia has risen in priority for U.S. defense planners because of reports
that China and Cambodia have reached an advance stage in discussions on Chinese
exclusive access to naval facilities in Cambodia if not the future construction of a
Chinese naval base. In addition, the Trump Administration has signaled renewed
interest in advancing the Lower Mekong Initiative of which Cambodia is a member, in
part to counter China’s influence. Also weighing on U.S. thinking are the implications
of the European Union withdrawing tariff preferences to Cambodia under its
Everything But Arms program. If the tariffs preferences are cut this would make
Cambodia even more dependent on China.
In sum, U.S. defense planners are beginning to push back against rising Chinese
influence in Southeast Asia as part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. Re-engaging with
Cambodia is part of this larger strategy. The U.S. has gone so far as to declare that it
does not seek regime change in Cambodia.
Q2) In what ways can Cambodia and the U.S. strengthen their military-to-military ties
that could serve mutual security benefits?
ANSWER: Given U.S. legislative restrictions on countries that violate the human rights
of their citizens and undermine democracy, there is limited scope for any major U.S.
initiative. The most likely areas for the U.S. to engage Cambodia lie in professional
military education and training, assistance in peacekeeping and demining under
United Nations auspices, maritime security cooperation, and regular exchange of visits
at all levels. These initiatives are possible because the Trump Administration is not as
assertive as the Obama Administration in responding to Cambodia’s actions to
degrade democratic institution and violate human rights.
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Q3) Can Cambodia, as a small state, balance itself between the U.S. and China in an
increasingly tense strategic environment?
ANSWER: Cambodia has had little room for maneuver in the past because the U.S.
imposed sanctions regularly for violations of human rights and policies that
undermined democracy. China, in contrast, shows no qualms about supporting the
authoritarian Hun Sen regime under its policy of “non-interference in the internal
affairs of other states.”
From independence in 1953, through the Sihanouk regime, and to the post-United
Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) era, Cambodia has sought to be
neutral and non-aligned. But sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other members of the
international community regularly since 1997 have left Cambodia with little choice but
to align with China.
The current U.S. rapprochement towards Cambodia, including a letter from President
Trump inviting Hun Sen to the United States for an ASEAN summit, will be welcomed
in Phnom Penh not least because it will bolster the legitimacy of the Hun Sen regime
internationally and domestically. Cambodia is likely to respond favorably to U.S.
military engagement activities for the same reason.

Media Identification: Carl Thayer is emeritus professor at The University of


New South Wales, Canberra or Carl Thayer is emeritus professor at The University of
New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “United States Re-engages Cambodia,” Thayer
Consultancy Background Brief, November 30, 2019. All background briefs are posted
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