US hits Cambodia with arms embargo over China ties

US hits Cambodia with arms embargo over China ties

Move to restrict access to dual-use items, some military items and intelligence services

An armed security guard stands under a Cambodian flag in the capital Phnom Penh on Nov 16, 2012. (Reuters photo)
An armed security guard stands under a Cambodian flag in the capital Phnom Penh on Nov 16, 2012. (Reuters photo)

The US on Wednesday imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia over its connections with China and human rights abuses, just days before sending a top State Department official to convince the Southeast Asian country to keep up pressure on Myanmar’s military regime.

The Department of Commerce added export controls on Cambodia, including in-country transfers in response to deepening Chinese military influence that it said "undermines and threatens regional security." Along with the arms embargo, the measures will restrict access to dual-use items, certain military items and military-intelligence services.

Ties between the US and Cambodia have been tense following reports in 2019 that Beijing signed a secret agreement allowing its armed forces to exclusively use parts of the country’s Ream Naval Base along the Gulf of Thailand.

While the Chinese military has denied the reports, the Biden administration last month imposed sanctions against involved companies and individuals, including against two senior Cambodian defence officials for corruption related to the base.

"We urge the Cambodian government to make meaningful progress in addressing corruption and human rights abuses, and to work to reduce the influence of the PRC military in Cambodia, which threatens regional and global security," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

The relationship is particularly sensitive now that Cambodia has assumed the rotating chair of Asean, a group the Biden administration has sought to court to counter China’s influence. That means Cambodia will host a series of summits in 2022 that are normally attended by US officials, including President Joe Biden.

The State Department separately announced Wednesday that counsellor Derek Chollet will travel to Cambodia and Indonesia this week to seek cooperation with Southeast Asia in pressing the Myanmar junta to cease violence and release political prisoners who are being "unjustly detained."

'I have the hammer'

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was found guilty earlier this week of inciting dissent against the military and flouting Covid rules, in the first case of many against her. The regime later reduced her four-year sentence to two.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has stepped up engagement with the junta in his role as Asean chair, a move that threatens to split the bloc. Asean in October took the rare step of denying Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing a seat at a summit hosted by the previous chair, Brunei.

Hun Sen said earlier this week that the regime has the right to attend Asean meetings. He also accepted an invitation to visit Myanmar next month, the first government leader to do so since the junta took control in February.

Asean has struggled to get concessions from the military under a five-point consensus agreed with Myanmar earlier this year that includes the cessation of violence. The US, meanwhile, led international efforts to sanction the country’s military. 

"I have the hammer here but I do not use it yet," Hun Sen said during a speech last Thursday, likening Asean to a house and Myanmar to a broken pillar. "Do you leave it in a broken state to satisfy external partners?"

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