On Tuesday, news surfaced that the Cambodian government had effectively kicked out U.S. Navy personnel, jeopardizing several planned projects already underway that would have benefited local communities. The move has been read as an incremental if poorly-crafted effort by Phnom Penh to downgrade its defense relationship with the United States even as it seeks to boost military ties with China.
While temporary suspensions to bilateral military engagements do occur at times, the bizarre way in which things have been proceeding on the U.S.-Cambodia front is quite a rarity. A case in point came in January, where Cambodia suddenly cut its annual joint military exercise with the United States, which would have entered into its eighth iteration this spring, for the next two years. As I noted at the time, Cambodia’s excuse at the time that the military was overstretched did not really pass the smell test and led observers to turn to grand designs tied to Cambodia’s foreign alignments to explain the move (See: “Why Did Cambodia Just Cut US Military Drills?”).
On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy publicly announced that the Cambodian government had notified it of its decision to “postpone indefinitely” the Seabees program – a term commonly used to refer to the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, which has carried out humanitarian assistance in Cambodia over the past nine years. No reason was reportedly given for this.
Once again, clarity was not forthcoming on the Cambodian side. According to The Cambodia Daily, Navy Commander Tea Vinh suggested strangely that the Seabees were merely taking a vacation, despite the fact that the final group of Seabees had been honored in a special farewell ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, which indicated a certain finality about what had occurred. “They are stopping the projects. Now they’re going back to their country for vacation,” he said. “They’ll still help us to build navy offices or schools.”
The Cambodia Daily also noted that oddly, neither Chhum Socheat, the defense ministry spokesman, nor Nem Sowath, the director-general of the defense ministry’s department of policy and foreign affairs, knew about the Seabees’ expulsion.
These peculiarities aside, the expulsion of the Seabees indicate that the downgrading of U.S.-Cambodia military ties is now touching not just military exercises, but even humanitarian assistance-related programs, which would not traditionally be deemed controversial aspects of defense ties. It also suggests that despite the previous episode and the controversy it generated, the Cambodian government still sees very little incentive to at least be clear about what it is doing rather than offer unsatisfactory explanations or feign ignorance about the decision even after it has clearly taken place.
As I have noted before, given the lack of transparency from the Cambodian side, observers cannot be blamed for looking to Cambodia’s foreign alignments to explain the move. Some have already speculated Phnom Penh may be sending a message to Washington about its posture toward democracy and human rights concerns in Cambodia ahead of the 2018 elections, while others believe this has more to do with China, with Beijing leaning on Phnom Penh to nix links with Washington amid strengthening Sino-Cambodian military ties and its rising assistance to Cambodia ahead of upcoming polls (See: “China, Cambodia to Launch Major Military Exercise ‘Golden Dragon’”). Though these lines of thought tend to be a bit overhyped, there is a grain of truth to the general proposition that Cambodia has increasingly thrown its lot with China, much more so than its neighbors.
If the Seabees’ apparent expulsion is a casualty of these shifting foreign alignments, that would be troubling for Cambodia even though it would be far from surprising. As I noted in my last piece, though all Southeast Asian countries desire good relations with China, that ought not to come at the expense of them pursuing alignments with other nations as well. Overdependence on Beijing can jeopardize Cambodia’s own national interests even if it preserves those of the ruling party.
It also cuts off a link that had contributed tangibly, albeit modestly, to bettering the livelihoods of the Cambodian people, and emphasizes that these moves have costs (See: “Who Loses When Cambodia Cuts US Military Drills?“). Over the past nine years that the Seabees have operated in Cambodia, the U.S. Embassy calculates that it has carried out more than $5 million in community service projects benefiting tens of thousands of Cambodians, including building hospitals and schools in 11 provinces. The Cambodian government’s decision to expel the Seabees also cancels 20 planned projects, including maternity wards and school bathrooms. Such metrics, however, may not mean much to Hun Sen and his ruling party relative to others that are more directly related to their efforts to stay in power.