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Cambodia‐United States Relations
Carlyle A. Thayer
Presentation to International Conference on Cambodia: Progress and Challenges Since 1991 Convened by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Traders Hotel, Singapore March 29‐30, 2012
Cambodia‐United States Relations Carlyle A. Thayer*
The United States first opened diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1950 when Cambodia became an associated state within the French Union. US-Cambodia relations experienced abrupt changes and reversals since 1950. Political relations deteriorated in the early 1960s as a result of US military involvement in South Vietnam and Cambodia broke diplomatic relations in May 1965. Diplomatic relations were resumed in July 1969, severed after the Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975 and re-established in 1991. This chapter explores the impact of domestic and international factors on US relations with Cambodia in the period after 1991 when an international settlement brought an end to the decade-long conflict and Vietnamese occupation.1 Bilateral interstate relations between the US and Cambodia comprise multiple dimensions including, but not limited to, diplomatic-political, economic, defence-security and humanitarian-development assistance. This chapter illustrates that the pace and scope of the bilateral relationship varied across these dimensions over time. Progress or set backs in one area spilled over and affected relations in other areas.
Between 1975 and 1991 the United States withheld diplomatic recognition from both Democratic Kampuchea (under the Khmer Rouge) and the People’s Republic of Kampuchea/State of Cambodia (a regime set up during Vietnamese occupation). The US reopened its diplomatic mission in Phnom Penh in November 1991 following the comprehensive international political settlement of the Cambodian conflict in Paris a month earlier. The US ambassador was accredited to the Supreme National Council, a
Emeritus Professor of Politics, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
grouping of all the warring Cambodian parties under the auspices of the United Nations (UN).2 Following UN-supervised elections in May 1993 and the subsequent formation of the Royal Government of Cambodia, the United States immediately extended diplomatic relations and the US Mission was upgraded into an Embassy.3 As a result of domestic political turmoil in 1997,4 the US suspended aid to the central government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, terminated all military assistance and opposed loans by international financial institutions with the exception of funds for basic human needs. US political relations with the Hun Sen regime deteriorated sharply. A decade elapsed before US sanctions were lifted. During this period the pace and scope of rapprochement varied across political-diplomatic, economic, military and aid dimensions. For example, military ties were restored in 2004, but it was not until early 2007 that the United States resumed direct foreign assistance. Political and defence relations peaked later, highlighted by the visits of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to Phnom Penh in 2008 and Cambodia’s Minister of Defence Tea Banh to Washington in 2009, respectively. When the US Congress suspended delivery of direct aid to Cambodia’s government it exempted assistance in a number of areas such as counter-narcotics, public health and law enforcement. The United States channeled its development assistance through foreign and local non-governmental organizations and provincial authorities. As a matter of practicality, however, US aid officials continued to liaise with their counterparts in the central government.5 The US Congress subsequently reversed its suspension of aid as a result of positive domestic political developments. In 1998 and 2003, Cambodia held flawed but generally free and fair national elections that confirmed Hun Sen’s grip on power. Following each election Hun Sen formed a coalition government with the main opposition party. This lent Hun Sen’s government international respectability. For example, Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN, scheduled for mid-1997, was postponed following the outbreak of political violence.6 But once a coalition government was formed after the 1998 elections Cambodia was admitted to ASEAN the following year. Nonetheless, Hun Sen has continued to promote a culture of impunity. For example, no 3
one has been tried for the dozens of extrajudicial killings that took place in 1997. Hun Sen routinely uses his parliamentary majority to strip opposition deputies of their immunity and bring defamation proceedings against them in courts under his political control.7 The Hun Sen government’s record of persistent human rights abuses since 1997, and procrastination in setting up a tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity, aroused antipathy in the United States among influential lawmakers. According to one analyst, the US Congress adopted a partisan approach by taking sides in Cambodia’s domestic politics while the Administration preferred to remain neutral.8 Congressional views have constrained the process of political rapprochement.
The United States is Cambodia’s largest trading partner and textiles and garments make up 97 percent of US imports from Cambodia.9 Cambodia’s textile and garment industry employs 330,000 people and in 1998 accounted for 80 per cent of export revenue or $2.5 billion. The influence of the domestic textile industry on the Cambodian government provided a powerful impetus for maintaining and developing trade relations. Cambodia’s textile exports to the US were not targeted for sanctions during the decade of political estrangement primarily because Cambodia, at the urging of American trade unions, was compliant with international labour standards. American trade unions successfully lobbied against sanctions as long as Cambodia met its international obligations. Under the terms of the 1996 trade agreement with the United States, Cambodia’s garment industry was accorded preferential access to the US market in exchange for Cambodia’s compliance with international labour standards. US preferential quotas on textile imports from Cambodia expired at the end of 2005. Cambodia joined the WTO in October 2004 and its market share of textile sales in the US were expected to come under threat by Chinese exports when the WTO Multi-Fibre Agreement expired on 1 January 2005. Cambodia and other developing countries lobbied the United States to give their exports preferential treatment.10 The US responded by imposing safeguards on the import of Chinese textiles until the end of 2008. During this period Cambodian textile and 4
garment exports to the US increased by 20 per cent. In July 2006, Cambodia signed a bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the United States. In subsequent years TIFA has provided a forum to discuss bilateral trade and investment issues such as enforcement of intellectual property rights, customs, banking and financial services and US assistance to Cambodia to meet WTO commitments and domestic economic reforms.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US declared that Southeast Asia was the “second front” in the global war on terrorism. Cambodia was not immediately perceived as a priority. But a regional approach to counter-terrorism dictated that the US needed to improve relations with all Southeast Asian countries. Analysts pointed to Cambodia’s porous borders, weak law enforcement capacity and the availability of small arms and light weapons as factors that might encourage Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) to set up a base of operations. Small arms from Cambodia had already been smuggled to conflict areas in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.11 US concerns were well founded when it was revealed that Hambali (Riduan Isamuddin), a chief planner for the 2002 terrorist outrage on Bali, took refuge in Cambodia for several months after the attacks. In 2003, Cambodian security authorities arrested four foreign members of JI who were allegedly planning a terrorist attack in Phnom Penh.12 The formation of a coalition government in 2004, after a hiatus of a year following the July 2003 elections, provided an opportunity for the Bush Administration to assuage critics in the US Congress and step up cooperation with Cambodia, including counter-terrorism. The Hun Sen government responded positively. In 2004, Cambodia accepted US assistance to destroy 233 Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists.13 Cambodia was pleased when US authorities arrested and charged a leader of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters group implicated in inciting sporadic acts of violence in Cambodia since late 2000. The Cambodian government argued that the Cambodian Freedom Fighters was a terrorist organization.
In August 2005, responding to positive political developments in Cambodia as well as the government’s demonstrated willingness to cooperate with the US on security matters, the Bush administration lifted its 1997 ban on US military assistance. This decision enabled funds from the Foreign Military Financing programme to be used to assist Cambodia in border control and counter-terrorism.14 Prime Minister Hun Sen willingly agreed to exempt Americans working in Cambodia from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. The lifting of the ban immediately led to a spike in security cooperation.15 Between 2004 and 2006, Cambodia received $4.5 million in military equipment and technical assistance. In 2005, over 40 Cambodian officials participated in US-funded training and Cambodia hosted three US military delegations. Cambodia also became a participant in the Regional Defense Counter Terrorism Fellowship Program that financed English language teaching at the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) English Language Center. US Special Forces provided assistance for humanitarian mine action, while US Army ordnance disposal personnel taught safety and handling procedures. Cambodia became eligible for IMET funding at the start of FY2006. In 2005, US-Cambodian political relations went into a temporary tailspin as a result of Hun Sen’s heavy-handed treatment of opposition leader Sam Rainsy and civil society activists.16 In late October 2005, the US House of Representatives formally expressed its concern about the attack on human rights and liberties in Cambodia. Congressman Jim Leach, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, strongly criticized Hun Sen for violating human rights and press freedom. In mid-January 2006, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was dispatched to Phnom Penh to make an assessment. On the eve of Mr. Hill’s visit Hun Sen presented what he called “a gift to the United States” by releasing several human rights and civil society activists.17 Cambodia was motivated not only to improve relations with the US but also to forestall any cuts in aid by foreign donors who were about to hold their annual meeting. At this time foreign aid accounted for half of Cambodia’s budget. Sam Rainsy was pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen and permitted to return home in February 2006. Cambodia’s National Assembly unanimously 6
reinstated Sam Rainsy and two other opposition deputies who had been expelled from the legislature in 2005. Hun Sen’s actions precipitated a quiet reevaluation of US sanctions policy by the State Department and Congress.18 The upturn in US-Cambodia political relations was mirrored by progress in defence ties. In 2006, Cambodian’s defence chief visited Pacific Command (PACOM) in Hawaii to request assistance to build up the RCAF in April Hun Sen turned down a request to send deminers to Iraq).19 PACOM Commander Admiral William Fallon paid a return visit in July. Admiral Fallon met with Defence Minister Tea Banh who requested US training for the RCAF, which he identified as a top priority.20 A US military team was sent later to assess Cambodia’s training needs. Steady progress in trade relations, counter-terrorism cooperation and military-tomilitary ties, combined with positive domestic political developments, led the US government in February 2007 to resume direct aid to the Cambodian government after a ten-year hiatus.21 At that time the United States was the only major donor country that continued to impose sanctions for the 1997 political upheaval. By the end of 2007 Cambodia had become the third largest recipient of US foreign assistance in East Asia and the Pacific after Indonesia and the Philippines.22 US foreign assistance totaled $62 million. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy applauded the change in US policy because he argued it would provide Washington with greater leverage to promote democracy and human rights and provide balance in Cambodia’s external relations. Rainsy argued: “China does not pay any attention to human rights. We cannot leave our country to Chinese influence alone.”23
The resumption of direct aid from the US to Cambodia signalled the commencement of deeper rapprochement between Washington and Phnom Penh in a number of areas. For example, military relations took a step forward when Cambodia agreed to the first visit by a US naval ship in over thirty years. In February 2007, the USS Gary paid a port visit to Sihanoukville and crewmen provided goodwill medical care for villagers living near the port. In August, PACOM Commander Admiral Timothy Keating visited Phnom Penh and offered military training and other assistance. In November, US 7
Marines began a training programme for Cambodia’s National Counter-Terrorism Task Force and the USS Essex called in at Sihanoukville for the second US port visit in a year. The crew conducted medical and dental clinics for the local population. Trade relations continued their upward trajectory. In February 2007, the Trade Act of 2007 was introduced into the US Congress with a provision extending trade preferences to fourteen developing countries including Cambodia. At the same time, Cambodia and the US held their first round of discussions under TIFA in Phnom Penh. These talks focused on expanding and deepening bilateral trade and investment. The United States offered support for domestic economic reforms and assistance in Cambodia’s efforts to implement its WTO commitments. In mid-2009, the Obama administration also lifted restrictions on finance from US Export-Import Bank for American companies operating in Cambodia. Cambodia and the United States amended their bilateral trade agreement in September 2009 to include provision for US support for Cambodia’s economic priorities. The United States committed $7.79 million in funds to expand USAID’s Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Business Enabling Environment programme and support for increasing productivity of rural family businesses as a means of reducing poverty.24 US-Cambodia rapprochement also opened up new areas of interaction. In April 2007, the Peace Corps programme officially commenced in Cambodia with the arrival of twenty-eight English teachers. While in June, the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report concluded that Cambodia was making significant efforts to comply with minimum international standards. Despite improvements, however, Cambodia was retained on the Tier 2 Watch List. US political rapprochement with Cambodia reached a peak in September 2008 when Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte visited Phnom Penh and announced that the US would provide $24 million in aid targeted at improving public health.25 Negroponte also announced a reversal of US policy towards the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Up until 2008 the US had declined to contribute directly to the tribunal because of concerns over its independence and ability to meet international standards of justice.
According to a US Embassy spokesperson, Negroponte’s visit demonstrated Washington’s direct interest in engaging with Cambodia’s leaders and civil society.26
In 2008-09, US-Cambodia defence relations expanded considerably as the US increased financial assistance and the scope of its training programmes.27 In 2008, the US provided $4 million to assist in demining activities, and offered loans and training to increase the RCAF’s capacity to participate in UN peacekeeping operations.28 In June 2008, the US donated 31 trucks to the RCAF and also provided assistance to enable Cambodian troops to participate in multinational exercises. In March-April 2009, US and Cambodian navy divers conducted their first joint rescue and salvage exercise. In May, US Marines and RCAF personnel conducted a medical and dental capabilities exercise. In September, the US donated twenty containers of excess military equipment (including Kevlar helmets, field packs and camouflage uniforms) valued at $6.5 million. The highpoint in US-Cambodia military rapprochement was reached in 2009 with the opening of the Cambodian Defence Attache’s office and the visit of Defence Minister Tea Banh to Washington. Tea Banh was received separately by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.29 Gates reaffirmed America’s commitment to enhancing the capabilities of the RCAF in peacekeeping, maritime security and counter-terrorism. He also invited Cambodia to participate in a future Defense Policy Dialogue and identified defence sector reform as a new area for cooperation. Steinberg and Tea Banh discussed bilateral security cooperation, Cambodia’s role in ASEAN, human rights and Cambodia’s participation in international peacekeeping operations. Of particular importance was Cambodia’s decision to join the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), a global programme to train and equip 75,000 peacekeepers by 2010. The GPOI was a Group of 8 initiative funded by the US. In December 2009, Cambodia began construction of a Peacekeeping Demining Center of Excellence under the auspices of the GPOI. In late 2009, Cambodia-US defence relations hit a speed bump when the Hun Sen government repatriated twenty Uighur asylum seekers to China despite diplomatic 9
intervention by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In March 2010, the US suspended the delivery of 200 vehicles under the Excess Defense Articles programme in protest.30 Within a short space of time, however, defence relations continued their upward trajectory. In June, Cambodia participated in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) programme for the first time and received a port visit by the USS Tortuga. And in July, Cambodia and the United States co-hosted the GPOI capstone exercise, Angkor Sentinel, involving 1,000 peacekeeping personnel from more than 20 countries who participated in field and command post exercises in Cambodia.
US rapprochement with Cambodia is likely to continue on its present trajectory because a self-sustaining momentum in the areas of defence and counter-terrorism cooperation appears to have been built up. The involvement of US companies in the exploitation of Cambodia’s recently discovered offshore oil and gas reserves will contribute to broadening the bilateral economic relationship. A further factor contributing to rapprochement is the new found interest of the Obama administration in assisting the countries of the Lower Mekong (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand) to develop this sub-region. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the Lower Mekong Initiative to promote environmental, education and infrastructural development. She has met twice with the foreign ministers of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to advance development projects. The most recent visit was in November 2010 when Secretary Clinton travlled to Phnom Penh. Human rights and democratic governance issues are likely to remain the main impediments to rapprochement due to Hun Sen’s autocratic tendencies. Hun Sen’s massive electoral victory in the 2008 general election, coupled with support from China, and the expected financial windfall from oil and gas reserves, will serve to buffer him from domestic pressure by domestic civil society groups and external pressure from the United States (and other like-minded states) to address deficits in democracy promotion and human rights.31 Cambodia’s expulsion of the Uighur asylum seekers and acceptance of loans from China has aroused the ire of several American congressmen. On May 20, 2010, they 10
attached a provision to the Cambodia Trade Act of 2010 (H.R. 5320) that would prohibit the US government from reducing or forgiving “any debt owned by Cambodia to the United States”. This refers to outstanding Cambodian debts of over $440 million arising from unpaid US loans dating back to the Lon Nol era (1970-75).32 What was once a minor irritant could become a major sticking point.
This review of US-Cambodia has explored the domestic and international factors that have influenced decision-makers in Phnom Penh and Washington to seek rapprochement. by engagement across multiple dimensions. In the future, bilateral relations will be influenced by regional multilateral engagement. ASEAN has embarked on the process of creating an ASEAN Community based on three pillars – political-security, economic and socio-cultural. The Obama administration has clearly signaled its willingness to engage with ASEAN (by signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation) and regional institutionbuilding (by joining the East Asia Summit). These two developments will create a framework for US relations with Cambodia. For example, in 2009 President Obama met with Southeast Asian leaders for the first time on the sidelines of the APEC Summit. ASEAN leaders made clear they would like to reschedule future leadership meetings so Cambodia and Laos, which are not members of APEC, can attend. President Obama hosted the second US-ASEAN leaders summit in the United States in September 2010. ASEAN is promoting a new process involving discussions between its defence ministers and some of its dialogue partners, known as ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting Plus Eight (ADMM Plus Eight). The inaugural meeting was held in Hanoi on October 12, 2010 with the participation of the United States as one of the eight dialogue partners. This framework too will shape the contours of US relations with Cambodia by providing a multilateral framework for future practical defence cooperation activities The United States is also promoting regional multilateral cooperation to address non-traditional security challenges such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, pandemics and infectious diseases, counter-narcotics, trafficking in person, counterterrorism etc. Transnational challenges are best addressed by multilateral rather than bilateral responses and this too will positively influence US relations Cambodia. 11
Finally, United States relations with Cambodia will be shaped by the prospect of bilateral free trade agreements and the Obama administration’s initiative to assist the states of the Lower Mekong in sub-regional development. In July 2010, the United States committed $187 million to address water resources, food security and public health issues. The Lower Mekong Initiative will provide incentives for Phnom Penh to work more closely with the United States to achieve its goal of economic development through sub-regional integration. For background see: Carlyle A. Thayer, “The UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia”, in A Crisis of Expectations: UN Peacekeeping in the 1990s, edited by Ramesh Thakur and Carlyle A. Thayer (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 121-140 and Viberto Selochan and Carlyle A. Thayer, editors, Bringing Democracy to Cambodia: Peacekeeping and Elections (Canberra: Regime Change and Regime Maintenance in Asia and the Pacific Project, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University and Australian Defence Studies Centre, 1996). Carlyle A. Thayer, “The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia: The Restoration of Sovereignty”, in Peacekeeping and Peacemaking: Towards Effective Intervention in Post-Cold War Conflict, edited by Tom Woodhouse, Robert Bruce, and Malcolm Dando (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), pp. 145-165. US Department of States, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Background Note: Cambodia, January 2010. <http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2732/htm>.
4 3 2 1
Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia Continues Course of Political Violence”, Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter Annual Reference Edition, 24, no. 1, January-February 1998, pp. 1617.
Thomas Lum, Cambodia: Background and U.S. Relations, Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 18 July 2007, p. 10. Carlyle A. Thayer, Cambodia and Regional Stability: ASEAN and Constructive Engagement, The CICP Distinguished Lecture Series Report Issue no. 14 (Phnom Penh: Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, June 1998). Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia Power Play”, The Wall Street Journal, 4 December 2009, p. 11.
8 7 6
Sheldon W. Simon, “Military Support and Political Concerns”, Comparative Connections 9, no. 1 (April 2007). The archive for this publication is located at: <http://csis.org/program/comparative-connections>.
9 Lum, Cambodia, op. cit., p. 8 and Khatharya Um, “Cambodia: A Decade After the Coup”, Southeast Asian Affairs 2008, edited by Daljit Singh and Tin Maung Maung Than (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), p. 111.
10 11 12 13 14 15
Lum, Cambodia, op. cit., p. 8. Ibid., p. 13. Ibid., pp. 13-14. Ibid., p. 13. Ibid., p. 10.
Embassy of the United States, Office of Defense Cooperation, “ODC Mission”, 2005. <http://cambodia.usembassy.gov/defence_cooperation_office.html>. Sheldon W. Simon, “Military Relations Restored with Indonesia; while U.S. Passes on the First East Asian Summit”, Comparative Connections 7, no. 4 (January 2006). The archive for this publication is located at: <http://csis.org/program/comparativeconnections>.
17 18 19 16
Ibid., electronic version. Ibid, electronic version.
Simon, “U.S. Pushes Security and Trade Interests in Southeast Asia”, Comparative Connections 8, no. 2 (July 2006). The archive for this publication is located at: <http://csis.org/program/comparative-connections>. Sheldon W. Simon, “U.S. Strengthens Ties to Southeast Asian Regionalism”, Comparative Connections 8, no. 3 (October 2006). The archive for this publication is located at: <http://csis.org/program/comparative-connections>. Lum, Cambodia, op. cit., p. 1. Ibid. Simon, “Military Support and Political Concerns”, op. cit., elecronic version. 22 September 2009.
21 22 23 24
Embassy of the United States, Press Release, <http://cambodia.usembassy.gov/sp_092209.html>.
“Remarks by Deputy Secretary Negroponte in Cambodia”, U.S. Department of State, 16 September 2008. <http://www.state.gov/s/d/2008/109787.htm>. “Remarks by Charge d’affaires Piper Wind Campbell on America’s Role in Asia”, Embassy of the United States, Speeches, 12 January 2009. <http:/’cambodia.usembassy.gov/sp_011209.html>.
27 This section draws on Carlyle A. Thayer, Southeast Asia: Patterns of Security Cooperation, ASPI Strategy Report (Canberra: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, September 2010), pp. 45-46.
Cambodia sent demining specialists to UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan in 2006, and in September 2009 agreed to send demining specialists to Chad and the Central African Republic. Release, 23 September 2009.
Embassy of the United States, Press <http://cambodia.usembasy.gov/pr_092309.html>.
June 2010, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Eric Schwartz, visited Cambodia (and Laos) for discussions with government officials.
Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia: The Cambodian People’s Party Consolidates Power”, in Southeast Asian Affairs 2009 edited by Daljit Singh (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009), pp. 85-101. Scot Marciel, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “The United States and Cambodia: Bilateral Relations and Bilateral Debt”, Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment, House Foreign Affairs Committee, Washington, D.C., 14 February 2009.
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