Cambodia dismisses U.S. aid program, thanks China for $157 million

Sgt. Kaine Marzola of the III Marine Expeditionary Force hands out newly donated bed nets to children during a community relations event in Ou Village, Kampot Province, Cambodia as part of a regularly-held exercise between the U.S. and Cambodian forces. (Credit: Cpl. Kentavist Brackin / DVIDSHUB / Flickr)

After nine years of service, the Cambodian government has suddenly nixed a U.S. military aid program with no explanation, while accepting a $157 million grant from China for a new soccer stadium. The move, many say, sends a clear signal of the country’s shifting diplomatic posture.

The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh announced the Cambodian government’s decision last Tuesday.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia officially notified the Embassy of its decision last week to postpone indefinitely the mission of the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, which has been carrying out community service projects in underserved areas of Cambodia since 2008,” embassy Deputy Spokesman David Josar told the Cambodia Daily.

“The Cambodian government did not offer a reason for their decision,” he added. “We refer you to the government for an explanation.”

According to the embassy’s Facebook page, the battalion – better known as the Seabees – “carried out more than $5 million in community service projects benefiting tens of thousands of Cambodians” since 2008, such as building improvements for hospitals and schools in 11 provinces. The government’s sudden decision to boot the battalion out of the country canceled a projected budget of $815,000 through 2019 and 20 planned projects, including maternity wards and school bathrooms.

However, Cambodian Navy Commander Tea Vinh told the Cambodia Daily that the Seabees were simply returning home for a “vacation.”

“They’ll still help us to build navy offices or schools,” he said.

According to Reuters, Defense Ministry Spokesman Chhum Socheat didn’t know about the dismissal, and Nem Sowath, director-general of the defense ministry’s department of policy and foreign affairs, was unaware of “any recent communications with the U.S. Embassy regarding the Seabees,” the Cambodia Daily reported.

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Meanwhile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last Tuesday celebrated a $157 million grant from China to build a new soccer stadium, where it will host the 2023 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games for the first time.

“I believe our people, and especially our athletes, won’t belittle my ability and that of the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)]in leading Cambodia to host the SEA Games,” he said at a groundbreaking ceremony for the complex, according to Radio Free Asia. “After the regime of genocide and wars, Cambodians need infrastructure, social development and improvement of our livelihoods.”

Critics agreed with the latter part of his statement, but did not agree a stadium is the best way to achieve that aim.

“Genuine development is not proven in just the construction of a new stadium,” political commentator Meas Ny told Radio Free Asia’s Khmer service. “There are other contributing factors, such as the cleanliness of the nation’s cities and usefulness of other public services.”

However, Cambodia is also receiving plenty of aid from China for other development projects, bolstering worries about Cambodia’s growing dependency on its largest donor.

On Thursday, Hun Sen announced plans to ask China for another aid package to build a new road along the country’s border with Thailand. He made the announcement at the opening of a new road in Phnom Penh that was also paid for with Chinese money. All in all, Hun Sen said Cambodia will need $500 million to $700 million for infrastructure projects, including roads, bridges, irrigation systems, the electricity grid, education and health care.

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Cambodia’s government reports that since 2002, China has provided nearly $3 billion in loans for 47 development projects and $180 million in grants for another 10 projects, according to Radio Free Asia. In October 2016, China forgave $89 million of Cambodia’s debt and signed agreements for $237 million in soft loans. The grant for the new soccer stadium is the largest of the 10 grant-funded projects.

The strengthening ties between the two countries, which China described on Friday as “good neighbors, friends, brothers and partners,” is worrisome for the U.S. as it watches long-standing allies in the region turn toward Beijing. The recent expulsion of the Seabees follows closely on the heels of a similarly sudden cancellation in January of an annual joint military exercise with the U.S. scheduled for the spring and which would have been the eighth in the series.

Hun Sen recently also asked President Donald Trump to forgive the country’s $247 million war-era debt, which has now ballooned to over half a billion dollars. The U.S. responded that Cambodia can and should repay the debt, a demand that Cambodia condemned as “immoral.”

“Cambodia is in fact expecting a much larger humanitarian assistance at the present time from the U.S. government, rather than demands of half a billion dollars from a poor country that needs to concentrate on areas such as health care, education, infrastructure, [landmine]clearance and rehabilitation,” Sous Yara, a lawmaker and spokesman for Hun Sen’s CPP party, wrote in the Phnom Penh Post.

In the meantime, all indications show Cambodia will continue cozying up to China to fill the void.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.