U.S. orders arms embargo on Cambodia, citing Chinese military influence

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The US has ordered an arms embargo on Cambodia, citing deepening Chinese military influence, corruption and human rights abuses by the government and armed forces in the Southeast Asian country.

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Additional restrictions on defense-related goods and services issued by the state and commerce departments are due to be published and effective Thursday.

A notice in the Federal Register said developments in Cambodia were “contrary to the interests of US national security and foreign policy.”

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The purpose of the embargo is to ensure that defense items are not available to Cambodia’s military and military intelligence services without advance review by the US government.

The latest sanctions follow a Treasury Department order in November of sanctions against two senior Cambodian military officials for corruption and come amid growing concern about Beijing’s sway.

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At the time, the US government issued an advisory warning US businesses about the potential risk to Cambodia and its military “indulging in human rights abuses, corruption and other unsustainable conduct.”

Cambodia called those sanctions “politically motivated” and said it would not discuss them with Washington.

The US has similar controls on exports of goods that can be diverted to “military end users” in Myanmar, China, Russia and Venezuela.

US exports to Cambodia totaled $5.6 billion in 2019. The volume of military-related US exports to Cambodia was not immediately available. The US is the biggest export market for Cambodia, a major textile manufacturing hub, but three-quarters of Cambodia’s imports come from China and other countries in Asia.

The US halted military aid to Cambodia after the 1997 coup in which the country’s leader Hun Sen seized power after ousting his co-premier Prince Norodom Ranridh. Hun Sen remains Prime Minister. In August 2005, President George W. Bush lifted the ban, citing the Phnom Penh agreement to exempt Americans from prosecution by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court.

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Since direct military ties between the two countries were restored in 2006, the US has pledged millions of military aid to Cambodia, initially to help improve its border security and peacekeeping operations.

China is Cambodia’s largest investor and closest political partner. It was a main supporter of Pol Pot’s murderous regime in the 1970s and has long maintained strong ties with Hun Sen, who has ruled for more than 30 years and has become increasingly repressive.

Beijing’s support allows Cambodia to disregard Western concerns about its poor record in human and political rights, and in return Cambodia generally supports Beijing’s geopolitical position on issues such as its territorial claims in the South China Sea. does.

The construction of new Chinese military facilities at Cambodia’s Riem Naval Base is a point of strong contention with Washington.

Reem faces the Gulf of Thailand adjacent to the South China Sea, where China has aggressively claimed the entire strategic waterway. The US has refused to recognize China’s broad claims, and the Navy’s 7th Fleet regularly crosses the Chinese-held islands with what it refers to as freedom of navigation operations.

In recent years, Hun Sen’s government has cracked down on political protests, shutting down media outlets and sending hundreds of Cambodian politicians, human rights activists and journalists into exile.

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Human rights groups say the government engaged in arbitrary arrests and other abuses and works to portray peaceful discontent over corruption, land rights and other issues as attempts to overthrow the government.

Corruption is another major concern.

Treasury Department sanctions targeted the director general of the Defense Ministry’s Department of Materials and Technical Services and a commander in the Royal Cambodian Navy.

In a statement, the Treasury alleged that in 2020 and 2021, the two conspired with other Cambodian officials to raise the cost of a construction project at the Reem base and then plan to use the funds for their own benefit.

Washington has opposed the work at Ream, which officials have said included the demolition of two US-funded buildings without notice or explanation to the US.

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