The Folly of US Intervention in Cambodia

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The Folly of US Intervention in Cambodia

What lessons from the Cold War should Washington heed?

The Folly of US Intervention in Cambodia

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, waves to supporters during his Cambodian People’s Party’s last campaign for July 29 general election, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, July 27, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

The resumption this year of the deportation of Cambodian nationals residing in the United States is merely another chapter in a long history of tumultuous relations between the United States and Cambodia that date back to the Cold War. Just this year alone, 73 Cambodians have been deported to date, which also represents a marked increase in terms of rate. To put things in perspective, only 639 Cambodians have been deported since the U.S.-Cambodian Joint Commission on Repatriation was signed in 2002 according to Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization (KVAO) records. This trend is however indicative of an intensification of broader U.S. efforts to influence Cambodian politics.

Taken alone, the United States’ push for deportations to be resumed appears to be part of the Trump administration’s efforts to tighten domestic immigration controls in order to enhance public safety. But when seen as part of a series of policy decisions which have led to worsening bilateral relations between the United States and Cambodia, reminiscent of that which occurred in the early 1960s, it becomes clear that the move has a more geopolitical agenda. In 2011, the Obama administration declared America’s strategic “pivot” to Asia. Intended to reassert U.S. influence in the region vis-à-vis China, the “pivot” was to be underpinned by an increase in military commitment. However, instead of achieving the objective of reasserting American influence, the “pivot” resulted in an intensification of U.S.-China tensions. Having then failed to reassert itself through cordial means, U.S. foreign policy has, under the Trump administration, shifted toward a more coercive stance, employing diplomatic pressure in order to bring recalcitrant countries such as Cambodia back in line.

In July this year, just days prior to the Cambodian general elections, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act in response to what was perceived as a concerted attempt by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to influence the election outcome, particularly with regard to the arrest and jailing of Kem Sokha, a key opposition leader. Under the Act, sanctions would be imposed on all members of Hun Sen’s inner circle, barring them from entering the United States and blocking any assets or property they possess. The move comes on the back of visa restrictions imposed by the United States on Cambodia which were intended to force Cambodia to resume compliance with the 2002 deportation agreement. Taken together, these developments threaten to further sour relations, potentially driving Cambodia into greater dependence on China. A study of U.S.-Cambodia relations during the Cold War suggests that the possibility of this is not far-fetched.

Then, as the United States moved towards direct involvement in Vietnam, it intensified efforts to bring Cambodia into the fold of the regional anti-communist coalition that it was building. The Royalist government of Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk, however, preferred to remain neutral in order to avoid being embroiled in the larger Indochina conflict. In 1963, responding to increasing U.S. pressure, the prince cut off all U.S. military and economic aid and made diplomatic overtures towards China. On March 18, 1970, after the prince was ousted in a coup, the United States backed the newly declared Khmer Republic which was headed by Lon Nol, a military general who was an ardent anti-communist. This move was controversial because the prince had been the legitimately elected head-of-state. The outcome however was that the prince and his government-in-exile were forced to turn to China for aid, effectively polarizing the conflict along Cold War lines.

Now, as it was during the Cold War, China is seen by Cambodia’s political leaders as the logical counterweight to U.S. interference. And with Cambodia being seen to be an integral component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its diplomatic overtures to China have been met favorably. If the United States’ objective is to extend its influence in Cambodia, it must recognize that further antagonism of Cambodia’s ruling elite will only hasten the realignment towards China. After all, given Cambodia’s geopolitical situation, its approach to foreign policy will inevitably see it aligning with whichever power can guarantee its sovereignty, even if China’s own intentions appear far from altruistic. With the CPP winning a landslide victory in the general elections, the reality is that they will remain Cambodia’s political leaders for the foreseeable future. By refusing to acknowledge this fact and continuing to target Hun Sen’s government, the United States risks alienating Cambodia as a regional strategic partner entirely. This has a further impact on regional security given Cambodia’s status as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Were it to prioritize bilateral relations with China over ASEAN’s collective interests, it would inhibit the organisation’s ability to address important regional issues such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

A more practical approach for the United States would therefore be to proactively engage Hun Sen’s government rather than trying to change the status quo. U.S. Cold War intervention remains fresh in the memory of Cambodia’s political leaders and any perceived attempt at intervention is viewed with suspicion. Furthermore, Cambodia has no intrinsic preference for Chinese influence and has historically preferred to remain neutral, insofar as its domestic interests are not compromised. Tellingly, the government’s stance on deportation urges for a renegotiation of the terms rather than an outright refusal to cooperate. This suggests a willingness to engage and come to a common ground.

Now faced with a choice between continuing its interventionist approach and seeking rapprochement with the CPP, the United States should go with the latter. This will prevent Cambodia’s and China’s interests from becoming further intertwined, compromising its commitment to ASEAN and the organisation’s vision of building a regional rules-based community. Given that the United States views the maintenance of an international rules-based order as critical to peace and prosperity in the region, it would be in its interest to have Cambodia on board as an active partner. This would yield more tangible benefits than were it to attempt to engender political change. It is informative that the U.S. intervention in Cambodia during the Cold War destabilized the country to such an extent as to allow the Khmer Rouge to come to power. While there is no Khmer Rouge waiting in the wings today, the historical context provides a reminder as to the pitfalls of intervention without having fully considered the alternatives.  

Ian Li is a research analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is also currently a PhD Candidate at the National University of Singapore.