Was the CIA Director Recently in Phnom Penh?

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Was the CIA Director Recently in Phnom Penh?

Whether or not William Burns visited Cambodia, as former PM Hun Sen seemed to claim, U.S.-China competition has set off an intelligence race in Southeast Asia.

Was the CIA Director Recently in Phnom Penh?

CIA director William Burns attends a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Monday, March 11, 2024, in Washington.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

What exactly did Hun Sen just leak? On June 7, Cambodia’s former prime minister took to social media to explain why his country wouldn’t be sending a representative to the upcoming Ukraine-organized Global Peace Summit in Switzerland next weekend. According to Hun Sen, who last year handed over the premiership to his eldest son but still effectively rules the country from his new perch as Senate president, Cambodia’s decision wasn’t due to pressure from China, as was alleged, but because Phnom Penh reckons the summit is pointless without Russia’s participation.

Buried towards the end of the post, Hun Sen wrote that he had explained all of this “to the CIA director on June 2 and the U.S. Secretary of Defense on June 4 when they came to see me.”

Before this, there was no information that Bill Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was in Asia, and certainly not in Cambodia. Indeed, Burns has spent the past few weeks shuttling between the Middle East and Europe trying to sort out a ceasefire for the Gaza War. The translation of the Hun Sen post, originally in Khmer, could be an issue. Possibly he was referring to only Austin, the U.S. defense secretary. Possibly he wasn’t referring to Burns when he said “the CIA director,” but some other senior official from the CIA that he met before Austin’s visit.

Burns was in Europe for a few days at the end of May, according to news wire reports on May 24, and then in Doha on June 4. There’s no information that he was at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore between May 31 and June 2, which Austin attended and from where he traveled onto Cambodia. Nothing published online gives Burns’s whereabouts on June 2. Hun Sen published nothing about this apparent meeting on his social media pages on the day itself. Judging by his posts, his agenda was free (a rarity) that day. Nothing has been said about the alleged visit from the American side. Indeed, there has been no report that anyone from the CIA met with Hun Sen this month.

Austin, the defense secretary, did visit Cambodia on June 4 to much fanfare, with some analysts regarding it as a sign of rapprochement between the two countries, after tense relations since 2017. Washington regards Cambodia as a bought-up member of the China axis, including allegations it has handed control of its main naval base to the Chinese navy. Phnom Penh denies this, claims neutrality, and says it wants to fix things with America. Indeed, part of the disagreement was over Phnom Penh’s accusations that the U.S., especially the CIA, is directly backing the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its apparent plot to launch a “color revolution,” a fabrication the ruling party used to dissolve its popular opponent in 2017. Last year, Cambodia’s National Police said it was investigating two alleged CIA agents who were in Phnom Penh for the verdict of the trial of Kem Sokha, the former CNRP president, who was convicted of treason.

I’m guessing this was an intentional leak by Hun Sen, who used his apparent conversations with the CIA (possibly Burns) to preface his assertion that Beijing doesn’t dictate Cambodian policy. Indeed, he’s so not under China’s thumb that he met with the CIA, was the apparent message.

The most plausible explanation (if the meeting happened) is that the CIA wanted to discuss the Ream Naval Base with Hun Sen, as did Austin. Since 2018, Washington has alleged that Phnom Penh has secretly agreed to allow the Chinese navy exclusive access to the base on the Gulf of Thailand. This would leave Vietnam encircled and allow the Chinese navy to launch attacks from the west of the South China Sea in the event of a regional conflict. The Pentagon calls it China’s “first overseas base in the Indo-Pacific.” Naturally, the Americans want to know what’s actually happening.

It is also conceivable that the CIA wanted to talk about Cambodia’s vast, Chinese-run scam industry, which could now be worth more than $12.5 billion annually, a third of the country’s formal GDP. The fraud factories are increasingly targeting Americans, with a recent report claiming it “could soon rival fentanyl as one of the top dangers that Chinese criminal networks pose to the United States.” I cannot see how Washington does not soon start to consider this a national security issue and react accordingly, which should be a major concern for Phnom Penh.

However, for a year now, I’ve heard the rumor that the U.S. is trying to get the Cambodian government to agree to the CIA stationing some “declared agents” in Phnom Penh. Who knows if it has “undeclared assets” in the country? The Cambodian government has alleged that. Given Cambodia’s close relationship with China, its geostrategic location and the influence (or dominance) of Chinese organized crime over some very important Cambodian politicians, it’s unthinkable that the CIA wouldn’t have some footprint in the country, although formalizing that with having “declared agents,” who the host country knows about, would certainly make their jobs easier. If this rumor is true, and Hun Sen is willing to agree, that would be one tangible demonstration of rapprochement.

The New Cold War between the U.S. and China has sparked an intelligence race. Indeed, American intelligence is expanding in Southeast Asia. The $300 million new U.S. consulate-general in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, could house U.S. intelligence assets, according to reports. “It would be no coincidence that Chiang Mai has been chosen as a strategic listening post,” Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based journalist, wrote recently in the Asia Times. Beijing has made similar allegations about the new building, which Washington denies. America’s diplomatic mission in Chiang Mai, first established in 1950 and nicknamed the “Elephant Cage,” was first used to assist Chinese nationalists that had fled to Myanmar after the communists’ victory and then for U.S. intelligence during the wars in Laos and Vietnam.

So, too, is China’s party and military intelligence also expanding in the region. The surface noise is that Beijing can use Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base for military purposes, namely, to encircle Vietnam and from which to launch vessels in the event of a South China Sea conflict. However, less discussed is that Ream also offers Chinese intelligence a base from which to listen in to the Vietnamese military; the headquarters of Vietnam’s Fifth Naval Region is at An Thoi Naval Base on the southern tip of Phu Quoc, less than 30 kilometers away. It’s unthinkable that Phnom Penh isn’t swarming with Chinese intelligence agents, both “declared” and “undeclared.”