Washington Is Conceding Cambodia to China

China Aids Cambodia

Night Market in Phnom Penh

China Aids Cambodia

Currently, China provides more aid to impoverished Cambodia than all other countries combined. More than half the Cambodian budget is financed by foreign aid. As a result, Cambodia has become a virtual ally of China, with important strategic implications that Washington perilously ignores.

In contrast, the United States has a long history of adversarial actions toward Cambodia . The American military bombed neutral Cambodia in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, helped to topple Prince Sihanouk in 1970, failed to have a reasonable policy toward the genocidal Khmer Rouge, boycotted the country during the 1980s, blocked a peace agreement in 1989, and has attacked the government since Cambodia’s first democratic election in 1993 instead of trying to make amends.

Meanwhile, China is acting aggressively in the South China Sea, location of important international sea lanes. Beijing insists that the Paracel and Spratly islands are historically part of China, but several Southeast Asian countries (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam  contend that some islands lie within their 200-mile exclusive economic zones, as established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Since the 1970s, there have been several confrontations between vessels of China and those of the Philippines and Vietnam , most recently at Scarborough Shoals.

In June this year, China declared Sansha City on Woody Island in the Paracels as the administrative capital of its South China Sea territories. Beijing then invited foreign firms to bid on nine oil gas blocks, including some already claimed by Vietnam and prospected by India . China has even assigned 45 legislators to govern the 1,100 people living in the islands.

In late July, Beijing announced that a military garrison would be established on the island. People’s Liberation Army officers have been assigned to guard Chinese interests. Vietnam accuses China of violating international law.
The Philippines , a U.S. treaty ally, describes China ’s moves as unacceptable.

On Friday, August 2, the U.S. State Department characterized China ’s establishment of the military garrison as “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” The following day, Beijing accused the United States of increasing tensions and summoned the American ambassador to explain the statement.
For the past decade, the ten-nation Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has tried to stop China ’s aggression. But at the July ASEAN meeting, Cambodia ’s veto prevented the other members of ASEAN from crafting a united policy position.

Therefore, the United States cannot back ASEAN, though the UN Charter permits regional organizations to act in such situations when the UN Security Council fails to do so. Instead, the United States is redeploying military forces in the region, an obviously ineffective bluff.

Were the United States to outbid China in supplying aid to Cambodia , ASEAN might have a united front toward China . Then the United States could exert more effective pressure, sailing ships into the area to deter further aggression.

So . . . why does the United States continue to concede Cambodia to China ?

Michael Haas

Michael Haas, author of the recent Modern Cambodia’s Emergence from the Killing Fields, is a professor at California Polytechnic University , Pomona .

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