US Sanctions Cambodian Leaders Amid US-China Rivalry

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The Southeast Asian country of Cambodia, inhabited by 16 million people, and still recovering from the decades of turmoil that surrounded America’s war with Vietnam, finds itself once again targeted by the US for standing in the way of Washington’s regional ambitions.

 At first glance by ordinary readers, the Radio Free Asia (RFA) article, “US Lawmakers Pass Legislation Targeting Political Repression in Cambodia,” would appear to indicate the US taking measures against a repressive regime simply for the sake of advancing human rights.

In reality, the US is once again cynically using the smokescreen of advancing human rights to target one of Beijing’s closest allies in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). More specifically, the US seeks to punish Cambodia’s government for uprooting the US-sponsored opposition Washington had hoped to replace the current Cambodian government with in a bid to cut ties between Phnom Penh and Beijing.

RFA claims:

US lawmakers and Cambodian opposition figures welcomed the bipartisan passage Tuesday of legislation calling for sanctions on Cambodian officials found responsible for suppressing political opposition in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country.

The article interviewed Mu Sochua, the deputy president of the now banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) whose senior leadership is now mainly based in the United States. She would claim that US sanctions might help the current Cambodian government headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen “think about his abuses and iron-fist rule.”

The US sanctions would be added on top of trade restrictions imposed by the European Union for similarly politically-motivated anti-China reasons masked as opposing political suppression.

The RFA would only much further down in the article partially reveal just why Cambodia had banned the CNRP in the first place, claiming:

The EU had earlier stripped Cambodia of its preferential trade terms following the arrest of CNRP president Kem Sokha in September 2017 and the Supreme Court’s decision two months later to ban his party for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.

Mu Sochua herself was implicated in the plot alongside Kem Sokha which was revealed when video surfaced of Kem Sokha admitting he was working with the US government, pursuing the “Yugoslavia model” with American-backing toward the ousting of PM Hun Sen’s government.

In a Phnom Penh Post article titled, “Sokha video producer closes Phnom Penh office in fear,” Kem Sokha’s words in the video would be quoted:

“…the USA that has assisted me, they asked me to take the model from Yugoslavia, Serbia, where they can change the dictator [Slobodan] Milosevic,” he continues, referring to the former Serbian and Yugoslavian leader who resigned amid popular protests following disputed elections, and died while on trial for war crimes.

He would also claim:

“I do not do anything at my own will. There experts, professors at universities in Washington, DC, Montreal, Canada, hired by the Americans in order to advise me on the strategy to change the dictator leader in Cambodia.” 

In addition to US government-backing of Kem Sokha and his CNRP, the US had also been funding, as it does virtually everywhere else across the developing world, a network of organizations engaged in political interference within Cambodia. This included US State Department-funded media platforms in Cambodia itself ranging from RFA and Voice of America to fronts posing as rights groups including LICADHO and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM).

Together, through the “Yugoslavia model,” the US sought to stir up street protests that would eventually lead to the overthrow of the Cambodian government and the installation into power of the CNRP. The “Yugoslavia model” itself is admittedly, according to the New York Times, based on US interference in Serbia during the late 1990’s regarding the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. Opposition groups including Otpor were admittedly funded to the tune of several million dollars a year by the US government toward this end.

Thus the so-called repression the US is accusing Cambodia of and citing as the impetus for US sanctions against Cambodia’s leadership, is actually resistance to US interference in Cambodia’s internal political affairs.

This recent move by Washington against Cambodia comes amid a much wider focus on Asia in regards to China’s rising power. Among ASEAN, Cambodia is currently the most vocal supporter of China regarding matters ranging from the South China Sea to military cooperation including inviting Chinese naval vessels to use Cambodian ports.

Despite this close relationship, Cambodia still has a vulnerable economy. Exports account for over 61% of its GDP and are distributed fairly evenly across Asian, European, and North American trading partners. The US is currently Cambodia’s largest export market accounting for over 21% of Cambodia’s exports. China lags behind providing a market for around 6% of Cambodian exports.

Despite Phnom Penh’s obvious necessity to align itself with Beijing, escaping pressure from the US and its allies will prove difficult as long as its economy depends on trade with nations willing to use access to their markets as leverage amid political coercion.

But because of the extensive measures the Cambodian government has put in place to contain or entirely eliminate US-backed political interference within Cambodia, both space and time has been created for Cambodia to make a transition away from depending on untrustworthy partners and redistribute its economic activity among more reliable partners including China.

Cambodia is one of several indicators of the overall balance of power in both Southeast Asia and in regards to US-Chinese influence in the region. Should Cambodia’s economy continue to grow and its political space continue moving out from under the shadow of US primacy cast over the region for decades, it may indicate what many suspect is unfolding – the irreversible decline of American hegemony over Asia and the world.

Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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