Cambodia placed under US arms embargo over China ties

A U.S. senior diplomat said a Chinese base in Cambodia would “negatively impact” ties.
By Jack Adamović Davies
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Cambodia placed under US arms embargo over China ties Sailors stand guard near petrol boats at the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, July 26, 2019.

The U.S. has banned the export of military equipment to Cambodia, citing concerns about “deepening Chinese military influence” in the country. The announcement by the Department of Commerce on Wednesday is the latest in a series of measures targeting the kingdom’s growing ties to Beijing.

“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,” said Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

For two years now, U.S. officials have been sounding the alarm over the refurbishment of Ream Naval Base outside of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s main port city. Work at the base has been supported by the Chinese government and in 2019 the Wall Street Journal reported that a secret treaty had been signed granting the Chinese navy use of the base for 30 years. The claim was denounced by the Cambodian government as “fake news,” but suspicions have persisted.

During a June visit to Cambodia, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman raised concerns with her hosts, warning that a Chinese base in Cambodia would “negatively impact” relations between the two countries.

The exchange was followed in November with sanctions against two senior Cambodian military officials. The Treasury and State Departments alleged the pair had conspired to illicitly profit from the Ream refurbishment project. The sanctions were announced in conjunction with a Department of Commerce advisory warning U.S. businesses of the “potential exposure to entities in Cambodia, such as the Cambodian military, that engage in human rights abuses, corruption, and other destabilizing conduct.”

A State Department filing published with the Federal Register on Wednesday regarding the arms embargo doubled down on the accusation that, “Cambodia continues to allow the PRC to expand its military presence and construct exclusive-use facilities on the Gulf of Thailand.”

The arms embargo covers not just conventional weaponry, but also so-called “dual-use” equipment. That is, items which could have both commercial and military or national security applications.

U.S. arms manufacturers have not traditionally exported to Cambodia. In the last 31 years, not a single piece of major conventional weaponry has been exported from the U.S. to Cambodia, according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database.

However, the embargo may still complicate procurement issues for the Cambodian armed forces. The regulations under which Wednesday’s arms embargo was announced are routinely interpreted by the U.S. government as applying to non-U.S. companies and individuals, providing the items being exported are either U.S. in origin or incorporate U.S. technology, commodities or components.


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