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Document suggests US aid cuts

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US President Donald Trump speaks alongside Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (right) during a meeting about the federal budget at the White House in February. SAUL LOEB / AFP

Document suggests US aid cuts

A document purported to have come from the US State Department appears to show plans to slash US development assistance to the Kingdom down to zero, a move observers said yesterday would further weaken the US’s standing in the country, allowing for China to cement its already growing influence.

The document, obtained and published by Foreign Policy on Monday, appears to propose doing away with development assistance to the Kingdom in 2018, down from a 2016 real spending level of $34.5 million. Similarly, the Kingdom’s Economic Support Fund would see a 100 percent cut from $8 million in 2016.

While not completely stripped, health programs run by the State Department and USAID would see 18 and 37 percent cuts, respectively.

If the document is reflective of final budgetary allocations – which would require US congressional approval – the US’s total assistance to Cambodia would be nearly 60 percent lower in 2018, compared with spending levels in 2016.

Cambodia is one of 77 countries that would see their development assistance slashed to zero, according to the document.

US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman declined to comment on the document yesterday, but said that US President Donald Trump had in March laid out a blueprint for the fiscal year 2018 budget, which allocated $37.6 billion for the US State Department and USAID.

“Beyond what is included in the budget blueprint, we do not have additional details on what programs will be reduced as part of the FY 2018 request. More details will be available when the full budget is rolled out later in the spring,” he said.

The timing of the revelations is unfortunate, with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy meeting officials from the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh yesterday.

Choub Sok Chamreun, executive director of HIV NGO Khana, said his group had been informed in February that USAID would not be funding any of their on-ground activities starting in 2018, leaving them with diminished funding options.

“As a local NGO we feel sad to see donor funding declining from USAID, and even other donors,” he said.

If the proposal is ultimately approved – still far from certain given criticism of the blueprint in Congress – it would be the second time a Trump administration policy has hit local NGOs in Cambodia.

Soon after assuming office in January, Trump reinstated the “Global Gag Rule”, which requires NGOs to certify that they will not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning” if they wish to qualify for US government assistance.

At the time, Cambodian NGOs providing abortions and reproductive health services were concerned the funding pull-out would affect their services.

The US’s development assistance in the Kingdom primarily goes towards nutrition, agriculture, good governance, demining and environmental projects, according to the State Department.

The disclosure of the potential cuts is unlikely to improve ties between Cambodia and the US, which have entered a rocky phase of late.

Multiple Cambodian officials have heaped criticism on the US for its bombing of Cambodia in the 1970s and its refusal to forgive war-era debt.

Analysts have suggested the heated rhetoric indicates a shift away from traditional Western partners and towards China, which has emerged as Cambodia’s main patron.

China, meanwhile, has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to fund large infrastructure projects with few strings attached, prompting government officials to point to China’s support as a buffer against any international criticism on matters such as elections and human rights particularly from the US.

But if US funding were rolled back, “soft infrastructure” projects relating to things like education and health would still be unlikely to find new funding, according to Miguel Chanco, lead analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit. “China is unlikely to fill this gap anytime soon, given the different nature of its assistance and investment to Cambodia,” he said.

Additionally, Chanco said, the US would see its ability to “buy” political influence within the country diminish if the cuts were to go through.

Paul Chambers, a professor at the Naresuan University in Thailand, said the US administration’s approach to slashing development assistance to fund President Trump’s budget will only cause the global superpower’s influence to wane further compared to China.

“By recklessly cutting US developmental assistance for Cambodia to zero, the Trump administration would be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of harming Cambodia’s perceptions of the USA, in fact pushing Cambodia into the economic arms of China,” he said, via email.

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