The government yesterday rebutted claims made by the US State Department that Cambodia had cancelled a number of international military programs in the aftermath of the elections.
Instead the government sought to portray delays in some joint military programs as being unrelated to the current political climate and denied that the Kingdom had postponed military cooperation with a number of other countries, as also asserted by the State Department.
The US embassy in Phnom Penh also backed down on the State Department’s initial comments yesterday, saying programs had merely been “postponed” until the political stalemate is resolved.
The developments come after Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this month dared the US to follow through on pre-election calls by some congressional lawmakers to cut direct aid to the Kingdom if the elections were not deemed to be “free and fair”.
Speaking at a daily press briefing on Monday in Washington, DC, US State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said the government had cancelled military programs with a number of countries.
“Following the elections, the Cambodian Ministry of Defence postponed or cancelled a number of international military programs, including with the United States. We would not categorise the cancellation of programs as a suspension of military ties,” she said, according to a transcript published on the State Department’s website.
Ms Harf did not provide details of what programs had been cancelled or discuss whether the US would raise the issue directly, but confirmed the move was a unilateral decision on the Cambodian side.
“So this is, obviously, in the context of the National Election Committee announcing some preliminary results, so we’re going to keep watching the process as it unfolds and see where we go from here.”
At a hastily convened press conference at the Ministry of Defence yesterday, General Nem Sowath, director-general of the ministry’s policy and foreign affairs department, said the postponement of programs had nothing to do with post-election politicking.
“We have only postponed some programs with the United States, not suspended or cancelled, because our [current] abilities and resources are limited, so we need more time to prepare ourselves for the cooperation,” he said.
Sowath also rejected that the delays were a unilateral Cambodian decision and blamed logistical and human resource issues, including the late arrival of US equipment.
“It is normal for either side to ask for a postponement of military cooperation programs, and it is based on mutual dialogue and agreement. It was not the decision of one party.”
Sowath added that bilateral military cooperation was still underway and on-schedule with other international partners including Australia, China, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
US embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh confirmed the government’s statement yesterday, distancing the embassy from the State Department’s earlier assertion that programs had been outright cancelled or suspended.
“The Royal Government has assured the US Embassy that these are only postponements, not cancellations, until a new government is formed as a result of the July 28 national elections,” he said in an email.
Despite yesterday’s diplomatic scurrying, analysts were quick to point out that a suspension or cancellation of military ties with the US could hardly be ruled out as a strategic move in Hun Sen’s post-election playbook.
“It looks to me like it’s pre-emptive and is holding course to the US that things could get worse on the strategic military [front] if they continue to push democracy and human rights.… He likes to play it tough, and there is nothing the US can do about it,” Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia scholar at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said.
With the situation likely to soon escalate, Hun Sen could be leveraging his position by taking the option of cutting military aid to Cambodia out of the Washington’s hands, Thayer added. “It’s a kind of threat. We can refuse your aid, so you can’t use that as a pressure point.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said if the government really was canceling bilateral military cooperation with the US, it would be a “risky” move.
“In the long term, [this] is counter-productive.… This is a bit shortsighted in the sense that, if the US means business, it could do a lot more that will harm Cambodia because it has influence in a lot of international financial institutions.”
Since military relations resumed in 2006 – they were broken off after the 1997 coup – the US has enjoyed a warm and increasingly close military relationship with the Kingdom (funding increased from $1.2 million to $5.7 million per year between 2010 and 2012).
Although the US remains Cambodia’s largest military donor, China has recently stepped up its military aid to the Kingdom, directly contesting US regional influence.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEAN TEEHAN