On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cambodia and China recently signed a secret agreement granting the latter exclusive rights to part of a naval installation on the Gulf of Thailand.

The report, quoting unnamed American and allied officials, said the agreement would allow China to use the Ream Naval Base for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years thereafter.

The news follows months of speculation that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is preparing to host the Chinese navy in southern Cambodia, and months of denials from Cambodian officials that any such plan is in the works. On Monday, the premier declared that the WSJ’s report constituted “the worst ever made-up news against Cambodia.”

Given its potential to alter the balance of power in Southeast Asia, the possibility of a Chinese naval outpost being established in Cambodia has prompted justified alarm in Washington.

In a statement, the US State Department expressed concern that a Chinese military presence would threaten the coherence of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and “disturb peace and stability in Southeast Asia.”

In some ways, however, the establishment of a Chinese naval presence in Cambodia—perilous though it is for both the country and the wider region—is the logical outcome of the existing American policy towards Cambodia.

Cambodian navy sailors stand in formation on a Chinese naval patrol boat during a hand over ceremony at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base. Photo: Twitter

Since the early 1990s, Western countries including the US have focused heavily on the goal of fostering Western-style democracy, a project that has done little but push long-ruling Hun Sen down the well-trodden pariah’s path to Beijing.

American and Western perceptions of Cambodia remain profoundly shaped by the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which brought together four warring Cambodian factions, including Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in a bid to end a long civil war. The Paris treaty created a United Nations peacekeeping mission to implement its terms, which coordinated democratic elections in May 1993.

Signed in the final months of the Cold War, the treaty turned Cambodia into a pet project of the emerging liberal world order. During this period, the Western view of the country became fairly set: a tragic country ravaged by war and revolution, Cambodia would now be ushered towards democracy and development by a unified “international community.” The only thing standing in the way of history’s grand design was Hun Sen, a one-eyed former Khmer Rouge commander appointed prime minister in 1985.

This perception of Cambodia has proven curiously persistent. One reason surely is the character of Hun Sen, a gruff, belligerent figure who fit the role of villain perfectly. Another reason was the efforts of Hun Sen’s opponents, particularly Sam Rainsy, a French former banker, whose constant lobbying in Western capitals helped reinforce this good-versus-evil view of Cambodian politics.

The main reason, however, was the perception that Cambodia was small and strategically marginal, and therefore a place, as one American official said of Myanmar in 1989, “where the United States has the luxury of living up to its principles.”

Together, these factors helped frame Cambodia as a worthy subject of human rights concern (and pressure to that end), but a nation strangely untethered from the wider story of the shifting balance of power in Southeast Asia.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers an address during an opening ceremony for the Khmer New Year at Bayon temple at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on April 13, 2018.Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers an address during an opening ceremony for the Khmer New Year at the Angkor Wat complex, April 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

From the very beginning, however, Cambodia’s status as an international “project” has been resisted by Hun Sen and his government.

Coming after a decade of civil war in which the US and its allies had cynically backed the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, the communist government that turned Cambodia into a killing field from 1975 to 1979 before being driven from power by the Vietnamese army, the West’s uplifting language about democracy rang hollow.

For this reason and others, the CPP saw democracy less a gift from the West than as a sophisticated way of edging it out of power.

Hun Sen and company therefore set about subverting these new democratic institutions, seething all the while at Western governments’ insistence on holding Cambodia to higher standards than those it accepted elsewhere.

To be sure, Hun Sen did little to help his own image, ruthlessly suppressing his opponents, selling off the country’s resources to the benefit of a small elite, and raging from his bully pulpit.

Nonetheless, it is true that his government came under much closer scrutiny on questions of human rights than more strategically important neighboring countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines, whose leaders have in recent years received invitations to the White House.

Persisting over the years, this differential treatment morphed into a perception that Western democracy promotion efforts concealed a hidden agenda: to kick the CPP out of power.

Then US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace, Phnom Penh, January 26, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool/Jacquelyn Martin

These fears deepened following elections in 2013, when the CPP hemorrhaged support to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by Sam Rainsy, which then launched a campaign of massive Arab Spring-style street demonstrations calling for Hun Sen’s resignation and investigations into alleged electoral fraud.

The protests shook the CPP, which feared that events might escape its control. These fears of regime change are not entirely unfounded.

Over the years, hawkish members of the US Congress have called for regime change in Cambodia; in 2003, one tabled a bill that would make American aid levels contingent on Hun Sen’s departure from power.

Figures like Sam Rainsy have also stepped close to the line of openly advocating popular uprisings against the CPP government. In recent months, Rainsy has called on troops to disobey orders from the government and for the people to “take to the streets to oust Hun Sen.”

He also declared that “the law-abiding international community must work to put an end to the Hun Sen regime.” Whatever one thinks of him, it’s hard to blame Cambodia’s leader for taking such proclamations at face value.

This is where China comes in. A minor player when the Paris Agreements were signed in 1991, China has since risen to become Cambodia’s most important international backer, its main trade partner, and its primary source of tourism and foreign investment.

Cambodian and Chinese troops during Golden Dragon joint exercises in Kampot, Cambodia, March 2019. Photo: Facebook

That Hun Sen has cast open the door so widely to Beijing is no surprise. Given his suspicions of Western intentions, and the continuing attempts by his opponents to leverage American and European pressure against him, it was predictable that he would gravitate towards a rising power with deep pockets and a shared disdain for human rights.

Previously, Cambodia’s reliance on Western aid imposed limits on how far it could go in suppressing its opponents. Flush with Chinese cash, those limits were quickly effaced.

This became clear in 2017, when Hun Sen’s government took the unprecedented steps of banning the CNRP and arresting its new leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason. Hoping to forestall a repeat of 2013, the CPP went on to “win” all 125 parliamentary seats at elections in July 2018.

Since then, Cambodia has come under a fresh wave of Western pressure to reverse its authoritarian slide. The European Union has begun the process of suspending Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the European markets.

In the US, Cambodia is now viewed almost exclusively in the context of Washington’s escalating tensions with Beijing. A number of bills are currently working their way through Congress, threatening targeted sanctions of various kinds.

A Cambodian police official stands guard as students hold portraits of China's President Xi Jinping and King Norodom Sihamoni during Xi's arrival at the Phnom Penh international airport on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
A Cambodian police official stands guard as students hold portraits of China’s President Xi Jinping and King Norodom Sihamoni during Xi’s arrival in Phnom Penh, October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Those making such calls risk doubling down on a bankrupt strategy, one that has arguably given Cambodia little choice but to yield to China’s strategic commands, including its alleged demands for exclusive access to its Ream naval base.

Far from leading Hun Sen to distance himself from China, recent pressure has merely deepened the fears and resentments that pushed him towards Beijing in the first place.

As relations reach a crisis point, the time has come for the US and other Western governments to abandon their bankrupt approach towards Cambodia and initiate a reset in relations.

One good starting point would be to jettison the idea that Cambodia is a special “project” and establish a more realistic balance between the advocacy of democratic principles and broader security concerns.

Officials on both sides need to take swift action to re-establish trust before the relationship is damaged beyond repair.