Cambodia's decision to walk out on a contract with a U.S. military unit has set off alarm bells within the diplomatic community and raised concerns that Prime Minister Hun Sen is prepared to sacrifice millions of dollars worth of humanitarian work to appease regional powers such as Russia and China.
Diplomats and political analysts said they were stunned by a government notification ending work on schools and hospitals by the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, or the Seabees.
“Well, I will find it extraordinary that Cambodians would happily cancel these types of projects without something coming in to replace it,” said Billy Chia-Lung Tai, an independent human rights consultant at CL Consulting.
“But who's going to be building these projects and where's that money going to come from? Or are these schools and hospitals simply just not going to be built?" he asked. "And if that is the case, are these projects now going to be picked up as Chinese-funded projects?”
Poke in the eye
The Cambodian government has not said why it declined to renew its Seabee contract, a move described by one diplomat as another "poke in the eye" for the Americans.
It's a point of frustration for Washington, given the nature of the Seabees' work.
“Since 2008, the Seabees have carried out $5 million worth of construction projects that benefited tens of thousands of Cambodians across the country,” said Jay Raman, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh.
“They've completed projects such as maternity wards, hospital improvements, water wells, bathroom facilities in public schools and similar projects, working hand in hand with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and local communities,” he said.
Whether China or Russia will step in to fill the breach remains to be seen, but the apparent use of genuine humanitarian works for political point-scoring has left Cambodia's most vulnerable even further exposed.
Raman said the Seabees "were scheduled to build six additional bathroom facilities at schools and two new maternity wards" and had other projects scheduled through 2019. "But, unfortunately, those have now been cancelled."
Encroaching power plays
The agreement's cancellation means at least 20 planned projects will be scrapped in a move reminiscent of Cold War plays.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy, added Hun Sen might be attempting to reposition Cambodia politically in his belief that the U.S. is on the decline in East Asia while Russia is seeking to raise its regional profile.
He noted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's shift toward China and U.S. President Donald Trump's as-yet-unclear foreign policy.
“With Duterte in Manila and Trump in Washington, perhaps Hun Sen sees the decline of the U.S. as a trend and is attempting to reposition Cambodia,” Thayer said. “The cancelling of the Seabee’s work continues a pattern of anti-U.S. actions by Hun Sen that Russian diplomats would have picked up.”
Those anti-U.S. actions included Hun Sen's request that the U.S. forgive a $505 million debt for food and agricultural goods. Cambodia's Lon Nol government borrowed the money in the 1970s, during its civil war with the Khmer Rouge.
The Russians have also refused to renegotiate a $1.5 billion debt incurred by the Cambodians during the Moscow-backed Vietnamese occupation of the country in the 1980s. However, China wrote off debts incurred in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge regime about 15 years ago.
In January, Phnom Penh suspended joint military exercises with the U.S., citing the June elections as the cause while rejecting suggestions that its decision was related to military and financial ties with China.
Beijing held its first joint naval drill with Cambodia last year after it funded lucrative contracts for Chinese-made weapons, jeeps, helicopters and training.
Cambodia looks north by northeast
Thayer said it became clear about three to four years ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin was angling toward re-engaging in the Asia-Pacific.
“Not much was done because Vietnam was the only country with solid links,” he said. “Last year, Russia hosted a summit with ASEAN leaders in Sochi and this seems to have breathed new life into an older initiative.”
Thayer added that the Russian navy had also conducted several exercises with its Chinese counterpart and last year had visited the Philippines after Duterte’s pivot to China.
“Putin rankles at the sanctions and isolation imposed on Russia by the U.S. and EU,” he said. “He seeks to break out and demonstrate that Russia has foreign friends, hence the opportunistic approach to Cambodia.”
China and Cambodia are also steadily tightening their diplomatic relationship.
In the past month, Beijing said it expected to bestow sister city status on Phnom Penh, while China's Shaanxi province struck a separate agreement to increase trade and tourism.
With commune elections due in June and general elections in July next year, the ruling party is increasingly relying on Chinese largesse as its backbone for a booming postwar economy. Two-way trade between Cambodia and China is expected to top $5 billion this year.