In another sign of a diplomatic shift toward Beijing, Cambodia has scrapped a long-standing U.S. military development aid program.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia notified the Embassy last week of its decision to postpone indefinitely the mission of the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion - better known as the Seabees - which has been carrying out community service projects in underserved areas of Cambodia since 2008. The Cambodian government did not offer a reason for this decision,” Jay Raman, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, emailed VOA on Wednesday.
The decision ends a program that has run for nine years.
Earlier this year Cambodia canceled a joint military exercise with the United States, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has lobbied for the U.S. to forgive Cambodia’s $500 million in debts dating back to the 1970s.
The Seabees ran a humanitarian program in Cambodia that included building schools, maternity wards and rural development projects. The projected budget through 2019 was $815,000 according a U.S. embassy spokesman.
However, Royal Cambodian Navy Commander Tea Vinh was quoted by local media as saying the Seabees were going on “vacation” and would complete their assigned projects.
The Seabees’ change of status is a further sign of Cambodia’s closeness with China. Cambodia has gone further than other Southeast Asian nations in courting China, and the shift away from Washington has continued under President Donald Trump despite Hun Sen's professed admiration for him.
On Tuesday, Hun Sen thanked Beijing for a $150 million grant for the construction of a new sports stadium in the capital.
“Thanks Mr. President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang and the Chinese people that provided support and offered this major grant to Cambodia ... which reflects close friendship and cooperation between Cambodia and China,” the Cambodian leader wrote on Facebook.
In October, President Xi made an official visit and left behind $237 million in new aid. Some political analysts have said the increasing aid from China reflects a shift in Cambodia’s international politics toward an Asian neighbor that has no qualms about human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch has reported that during 2016, Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) “significantly escalated persecution on political grounds.”
Chheang Vannarith, chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, told VOA in an email Wednesday that Cambodia was pursuing a more pragmatic foreign policy.
“Cambodia is against any hegemonic power or patron-type country. Cambodia is pro-Cambodia and this has been the core principle of Cambodia's foreign policy,” he wrote. “However, over-dependency on any single country may challenge Cambodia's permanent neutrality.”
Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, however, said Cambodia’s national interest should be the driver of its foreign policy.
“Increasing dependence on China has long-term negative implications, like any over-dependence on anyone. Cambodia should be independent.”