US-Cambodia relations are at their lowest ebb in decades over an anti-democratic clampdown, suspension of bilateral military drills and frequent gusts of less-than-diplomatic anti-American rhetoric.

But while the US has dangled sanctions and withdrawal of Cambodia’s preferential trade privileges in punitive response, signs are emerging that Washington is taking a softer, more nuanced approach to ease tensions.

The reason: reports that China has secured exclusive access to a Cambodian naval base, an alleged secretive deal denied by Prime Minister Hun Sen but if true would have big strategic implications for the region, including in the South China Sea.

Cambodia is squarely at the center of a US-China contest for influence in the region. While Washington had made neat inroads into the country, those gains were reversed in 2017 when Hun Sen’s government dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), providing an opening for China to consolidate its hold over the country.

While the US has suspended aid and sanctioned at least one Cambodian official, its becoming clearer that Washington is pursuing two clearly delineated policies towards Cambodia, one hardline towards Hun Sen’s government and his political allies, and another softer tack towards the military, civil society groups and the wider population.

In this good cop, bad cop approach, the US Congress is pursuing tough tactics while the White House and its controlled agencies are taking what some see as more subtle and sophisticated approaches.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during a recent bilateral meeting. Photo: Facebook

Congressional concerns about China’s rising sway over Cambodia were made abundantly clear in a recent US Senate Appropriations Bill, which among other things urged the Donald Trump administration to implement targeted sanctions “to demonstrate the costs associated with becoming a vassal state of [China].”

The same bill said: “Cambodia poses a growing strategic threat to its neighbors, specifically by the government of Cambodia’s reported agreement to allow the PRC to use Ream Naval Base as a military outpost to cover the southern flank of the South China Sea.

“The Committee believes that the selfish interests of [Hun Sen] to establish dynastic succession in Cambodia” has “played a significant factor in the dissolution of the CNRP, imprisonment and exile of its leaders, and growing strategic alliance with [China].”

That was clear reference to allegations that Hun Sen’s government has quiet plans to allow Chinese troops to base inside Cambodia, though any permanent basing of foreign troops would violate local laws as currently written.

Hun Sen and his government have spent the last year denying and discrediting allegations that plans are afoot to allow China to position troops on Cambodian soil, including at the Ream Naval Base that opens on the Gulf of Thailand.

US Vice President Mike Pence first raised Washington’s concerns about China’s naval base ambitions in Cambodia in an October 2018 private letter addressed to Hun Sen and first reported by Asia Times.

But a newly mooted Southeast Asia Strategy Act, made public on September 25, seems more likely to inform future US policy towards Cambodia and the wider region than piling on punitive measures.

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

The Act, if passed, will require the State Department and other federal departments to establish “a comprehensive strategy for engagement with Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).”

The bill’s sponsor, Ann Wagner, a Republican congresswoman, made clear that “to date the US has never articulated a comprehensive strategy for the Southeast Asian region. The Southeast Asia Strategy Act does just that.”

“Congress should listen closely to our allies demanding stronger leadership, and not just because China would be sure to fill any vacuum in power,” Wagner said.

The bill appears to have bipartisan support. Andy Levin, a Democrat lawmaker, said last month during the bill’s debate: “If we are not engaged in the Indo-Pacific region…who is going to fill the void? The answer is easy – it is China.”

The US Defense Department shares those concerns, according to its latest Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.

The report, released in July, said: “We remain concerned about reports that China is seeking to establish bases or a military presence on its coast, a development that would challenge regional security and signal a clear shift in Cambodia’s foreign policy orientation.”

The White House and State Department’s keen interest in Cambodian affairs was demonstrated in the nomination of one of the diplomatic corp’s most experienced Southeast Asia envoys, W Patrick Murphy, to serve as the new US ambassador to Phnom Penh.

Ambassador W Patrick Murphy (R) at a press event in Phnom Penh in 2017. Photo: Twitter

Between 2018 and 2019, Murphy served as acting assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and before that deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia.

Murphy’s appointment was notably prioritized at a time the US does not have ambassadors in residence in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand or ASEAN – all of which would ordinarily have been considered more important to US interests than Cambodia.

The US’s response to Cambodia’s single-party politics is thus increasingly couched in terms of its wider interests in the Asia-Pacific, and less so in terms of promoting democracy and rights, some observers say.

If China stationed troops or significant naval assets in Cambodia, it would radically alter how the US bids to enforce international law in the South China Sea, including through freedom of navigation exercises. It would also potentially destabilize the region in myriad other ways.

Vietnam, which put the CPP in government in 1979 after overthrowing the murderous Khmer Rouge, would certainly strongly object to the presence of Chinese troops next door in Cambodia.

It would also weaken already fraying relations between Hanoi and Phnom Penh, a wedge driven in part by China’s rising influence over the latter. Thailand, which has had hot and cold relations with Cambodia in recent years, would also likely be on a strategic edge.

By publicly and repeatedly raising speculation about China deploying troops at a Cambodian naval base, the US has forced Hun Sen to spend much of the past year repeatedly denying the allegations.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a ground breaking ceremony in Phnom Penh on January 14, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ly Lay

Diplomatic sources suggest the publicity surrounding the allegations has frustrated China’s efforts to secure a firmer strategic foothold in the country.

The US has also sought to isolate Cambodia from certain of its neighbors. US relations are fast improving with Vietnam, with talk of the former battlefield adversaries upgrading relations to a “strategic partnership” later this year.

Despite tough talk and threats, the US has also sought to maintain open lines of communication and influence in Cambodia through various channels, sources familiar with the situation say. Significantly, that includes military-to-military relations.

Despite Cambodia’s 2017 suspension of joint Angkor Sentinel military exercises, Washington continues “to cooperate in peacekeeping operations, humanitarian mine action, medical research, and US Missing in Action personnel accounting,” the Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report noted.

Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph Felter quietly met with Cambodian military officials in Phnom Penh.

Clearly the Pentagon saw the meeting as an avenue to influence politics, as it sparked an angry reaction from government spokesman Phay Siphan. “We cannot accept it that a US military representative came here to talk with the Cambodian military on political issues,” he said at the time.

But Washington’s bid to maintain strong working relations with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) makes good diplomatic and strategic sense.

Outside of Hun Sen’s clique in the ruling CPP, the military is arguably the next top source of political power in the country.

Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) salutes accompanied by his son Lieutenant General Hun Manet (R) at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Cambodian Infantry Army, Phnom Penh, January 24, 2019. Photo: Handout/AFP

That’s in part because it is widely assumed Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving non-royal leader, aims eventually to hand power to his son Hun Manet, who last year became the RCAF’s second-highest ranking official.

The US invited Hun Manet in his capacity as commander of national counterterrorism special forces to a Pacific Area Special Operations Conference in Hawaii in April. Hun Manet is a graduate of the US’s elite West Point military academy.

Washington is also pursuing diplomatic means through civil society channels. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh has been busy this year organizing various conferences and debates on Asian politics.

In September, the Senate’s Committee on Appropriations earmarked US$113 million in Cambodian assistance through September 2020, with the caveat it must “continue to assist the people of Cambodia achieve progress in specific areas neglected or purposefully undermined by the government of Cambodia, including health, economic development, the environment, and democracy and human rights.”

Ambassador Murphy said during his confirmation hearing that “I will seek to expand programs that empower Cambodia’s young people—who account for 70% of the population and represent the country’s future—to engage in the political process. I will further seek to develop programs that empower and train independent media in Cambodia.”

To some that all shows that the US is prepared to pursue a policy of “strategic patience” in Cambodia, one that may envisage better relations after a dynastic succession from Hun Sen to his US-educated son Hun Manet.

Indeed, there appears to be a budding realization in Washington that a wait-and-see rather is preferable to punitive actions which may ultimately push Phnom Penh even closer to Beijing and in the process destabilize the wider strategic region.