“It’s always darkest before it turns pitch black,” the late American senator and Vietnam War veteran John McCain was fond of saying, employing a slight twist on the cliché its “darkest before the dawn.”

The statesman’s turn of phrase could be used to characterize the current dark state of US-Cambodia relations, which arguably have not been this dim since America’s secret bombing campaign of the country during the Vietnam War.

But while Washington has imposed limited sanctions and cut aid to Cambodia for its democratic backsliding since late 2017, US policymakers are still seeking strategic ways to ensure that the lights don’t go permanently out on the relationship, including by reviving moribund military ties.

In early 2017, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government cancelled regular joint military drills with the US, then evicted the US Congress-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), and, proceeded to accuse the US of conspiring with the country’s now-dissolved main opposition party to instigate a “color revolution.”

A US official who visited Cambodia last month described the accusations of an American conspiracy to overthrow the Cambodian government as “just false.” America’s displeasure with Hun Sen’s lurch away from multi-party democracy and last July’s perceived as rigged election has been upfront and in the open.

A White House statement at the time said that the election “failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people” and represented “the most significant setback yet to the democratic system enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution.” In response, the US placed visa bans on certain government officials, cut some aid and even restricted contributions to de-mining operations in Cambodia, an area where China has since readily stepped in to provide funding.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) walks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Moreover, a number of bills now before the US House of Representatives and Senate could slap financial sanctions on senior Cambodian government officials, as well as imposed wider economic sanctions on trade.

Relations have darkened since the 1990s, when the US helped to fund a United Nations (UN) mission to restore a semblance of democracy in Cambodia, before pumping millions of dollars into the economy and civil society, while also propping up the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) with aid and concessional loans.

Washington even turned a blind eye when Hun Sen launched a bloody coup in 1997 to remove his power-sharing partner’s Funcinpec party from an elected coalition government.

If relations are not to fade to black, Washington must find some way of gaining the ear of Phnom Penh, but that is proving increasingly difficult as Cambodia’s attention seems fixated on China, today’s its largest investor and provider of aid, as well as its closest geopolitical ally.

Indeed, China’s gain has been America’s loss in Cambodia. Returning from a state visit to Beijing in January, Hun Sen boasted not only of millions of dollars’ worth of new Chinese funding, but also of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s apparent statement that the “relationship between China and Cambodia is very special, compared to other countries.”

China’s state-run tabloid Global Times concurred, writing that stronger “cooperation with China will benefit Cambodia’s economy and reduce Western pressure.”

But the US hasn’t abandoned hope yet. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), commonly known as the US Congress’s think tank, noted that “while the US government has criticized Hun Sen’s backtracking on democracy, it also has sought to remain engaged with Cambodia.”

US and Cambodian soldiers train during an urban warfare drill in their joint Angkor Sentinel exercises. Photo: US Government

Promoting democratic values is core to US foreign policy, even if some autocratic leaders consider such promotion an assault on their sovereignty and independence.

The CRS report states: “International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs provide English language instruction and aim to expose the next generation of Cambodia’s military leaders to ‘American ways and values’.”

Indeed, one possible avenue for the US to regain influence in Cambodia, analysts say, is through the military. US-Cambodia military ties were essentially severed in early 2017, when Cambodia cancelled regular joint military exercises known as Angkor Sentinel with the US which had taken place annually since the 2000s.

The suspension was originally supposed to be a temporary measure because the Cambodian military was too busy, Phnom Penh said at the time, but none have been held since. Instead, Cambodia quickly replaced them with exercises with the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has also started to kit-out Cambodian soldiers with the latest weaponry.

So far, one so-called “Golden Dragon” military exercise was held last year, while the PLA and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) plan to holder an even bigger drill sometime in 2019.

Regaining the confidence of and influence in the Cambodian military is now apparently a US goal. Joseph Felter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, visited Phnom Penh in January to meet with senior RCAF officials and spoke of “improving our military relationship and increasing military-to-military cooperation.”

That won’t be easy in light of China’s recent strategic advances in Cambodia. A US Defense Department report, published last December, noted that “China indicated interest in establishing [military] bases in Cambodia,” as well as in Vanuatu, a Pacific island nation.

Cambodian naval officers during a sea drill. Photo: Wikipedia
Cambodian naval officers during a sea drill. Photo: Wikipedia

“Although both governments have publicly stated they are not willing to host a Chinese military base,” it added, “Phnom Penh has agreed to receive new military aid from Beijing and participate in bilateral exercises with the PLA in the last two years.” The report was published too early to mention the four-day visit this month of the Chinese navy to Sihanoukville, a coastal city and hub of Chinese investment.

Asia Times reported last year on China’s reputed interest in building a naval base in Cambodia, which the Phnom Penh government described as “fake news” and has spent the last few months denying.

Asia Times rightly predicted that US Vice President Mike Pence would raise the port issue with Hun Sen when he visited Southeast Asia for summit meetings in November, which he did via a letter Hun Sen has acknowledged receiving.

“We’re concerned based on the precedent across the region that Cambodia might fall into the same trap other countries have and find themselves with a Chinese military presence or have access to ports and airports that they could use to project military power,” Felter told Voice of America this month.

More important, perhaps, is the way the PLA has expanded its co-operation with other armed forces through training and intelligence-sharing. By reasserting its own influence in Cambodian military affairs, the US, it seems, would somewhat dislodge China’s influence, as well as gaining a foothold in the politicized armed forces.

Felter said last month that improvements between US and Cambodia militaries are unlikely until there is “a national reconciliation” in Cambodia, by which he meant releasing Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha, who was arrested last year for “treason” and other political changes.

The comment clearly annoyed government spokesman Phay Siphan. Because RCAF is “not a political institution, but [is] under the control of the prime minister,” the spokesman told the media, Felter had no right to come “to talk with the Cambodian military on political issues.”

This photo taken on October 13, 2009 shows Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) posing with his son, Hun Manet (R), during a ceremony at a military base in Phnom Penh. Two of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's sons have received military promotions, adding to speculation that they are being groomed to succeed the long-ruling strongman, it was reported on July 24, 2013. AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) with his eldest son Hun Manet in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The politicization of Cambodia’s military is controversial but hardly opaque. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, a graduate of the US’ elite West Point Military Academy, holds the Cambodian military’s second highest ranking position, while another son, Hun Manith, is the director general of military intelligence.

China may have the military advantage at the moment, but the US still has economic leverage. Although Cambodia’s largest investor and one of its major trading partners, China isn’t a major purchaser of Cambodia’s exports, which contribute over 60% of gross domestic product (GDP).

In 2017, China imported a little of US$700 million worth of goods from Cambodia, while the US imported $3.1 billion. In the first 10 months of 2018, US imports were worth US$3.26 billion and are expected to keep growing this year unless new sanctions curb trade.

According to Hun Sen, Xi promised last week to increase Cambodia and China’s bilateral trade to US$10 billion by 2023, almost double what it is today. Exports of Cambodia-produced rice to China are expected to increase after Beijing set a higher annual quota, but in all likelihood their increased bilateral trade will mean more Cambodian imports from China, rather than the other way around.

If the US – and European Union – curb their imports of Cambodian products, Cambodia’s economy will tank. In January, two US senators introduced the new Cambodian Trade Act of 2019 bill, which, if passed, will force Trump’s administration to judge whether Cambodia should remain part of the US’ General System of Preferences (GSP), a preferential trade scheme that grants duty-free status to exports.

According to Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan, this was only an attempt to show the “senators’ muscles” and that Cambodia has “nothing to worry about at all.”

He’s partly right: The loss of GSP scheme privileges wouldn’t have an immediate major impact on Cambodia’s economy, certainly not when compared to the potential impact of the EU withdrawing Cambodia from its preferential trade deal, as it is now threatening.

Hun Sen irons clothes at a factory compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on August 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

In 2016, roughly $180 million worth of goods were exported to the US under the GSP scheme, less than a tenth of Cambodia’s total exports to America. Moreover, Cambodia’s most important exports, from the garment and footwear sector, aren’t included in the scheme. Indeed, the 15% of Cambodian products that aren’t included in the duty-free scheme are, by far, its major exports.

But by focusing on the wider economy, when previous punitive measures have only targeted individual Cambodian officials with financial sanctions, US politicians clearly see economic leverage as a way of bending Phnom Penh’s ear. After all, economic stability and high growth rates are core to the CPP’s legitimacy among ordinary Cambodians; the other being the peace it restored after decades of civil war and the enduring legacy of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

If the US eventually slaps duties on Cambodia’s exports to American markets, the economy and Cambodians livelihoods would take a hit. Whether the economic impact of US sanctions would be enough to bring disenfranchised Cambodians onto the streets is unclear, but the unrest Hun Sen warned America was trying to foment would be more clearly of his own government’s making.