Picture this. Somewhere in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own, a Chinese warship confronts a Philippine warship. Maybe it’s vice versa and shots are exchanged. It doesn’t matter which warship fired first. The fight is on and the Philippines’ warship is soon joined by American warships which come to the aid of their treaty ally. China marshals its resources, calling more of its warships to join the fight.
China’s military, which has clandestine facilities in Cambodia, ostensibly for the “repair and maintenance of its warships and jetfighters,” is ready to perform its support functions. The Chinese have prepared for this eventuality, but, so too have the Americans. Rather than bomb mainland China, which could escalate the territorial dispute into a world war, America bombs China’s military facilities in Cambodia and, while at the task, bombs Cambodia’s military facilities as well. After all, Cambodia is not merely China’s friend–it’s China’s military ally.
This is not a paper “war game.” America’s military has already considered this hypothetical situation and has bombed its enemies on Cambodian soil once before. This time, the objective would be to remove China’s military from Southeast Asia and more broadly the Indo-Pacific, which includes the South China Sea. A collateral effect of bombing Cambodia could be changes in power which nonviolent measures, like sanctions, could not effect. America would “kill two birds with one stone.”
Reality is also fraught with peril. America is engaged in a cold war with China which is militarizing the South China Sea. Cambodia supports China’s claims to the South China Sea. America believes Cambodia will permit China to position troops on its territory. China provides Cambodia with nearly all of its military assistance and small arms. Cambodia has had little choice but to engage China due to the historical threat and domestically unpopular land grabs from Vietnam to its east. The Philippines admiralty would also like to drag the U.S. into a fight with China. America views China as a threat to the post-World War II status quo in Asia in which the U.S. has heretofore been preeminent.
While the Cambodian government has many U.S.-educated leaders who could be allies, America has not “played this card” to improve its relationship with Cambodia, apparently having embarked on a course of non-violent measures to punish that nation.
Cambodia has been unfairly subject to a punitive U.S. foreign policy for a long time. However, America’s policy could become more interventionist in order to counter China’s possible militarization of Cambodia.
America should engage with Cambodia as an ally, do business with them and to try to influence its actions with respect to China. The carrot is better than a stick which has not worked.
Congress’s current policy seeks to sanction Cambodia’s leaders, to deny that country access to loans from international financial institutions, to withdraw Cambodia’s trade preferences and to elevate a defunct opposition party to the status of that nation’s legitimate government. The president has appointed a new ambassador to Cambodia whose self-professed mission is to promote democracy and human rights and work with Congress to punish that nation. In this context, America is effectively not willing to work with the long-standing de jure government.
Unfortunately, the U.S.’s experience with China over the last 30 years since Deng Xiaoping’s “Gaige Kaifeng” (the “Four Modernizations”) has led to relations becoming more closed and militaristic despite continued economic ties. Cambodia is open, democratic and needs friendship from a western partner.
America’s real objective in Cambodia is not a secret. It has nothing to do with freeing Kem Sokha or reviving the CNRP; rather, it is to contain China to protect America’s legitimate national security interests. Certainly, Cambodia also has its own national security interests to protect vis-a-vis China.
It is in both America’s and Cambodia’s best interest to negotiate a deal to contain China.
As a gesture of goodwill, America might consider forgiving Cambodia’s war debt, which totals around $500 million. This can be done in the amount of $50 million for every year over the next 10 years. The cost to America’s national security should China gain a military foothold in Cambodia would be far greater than $500 million.
As for Cambodia, it must know that the U.S. is a better strategic ally than China, one which does not have the same “hidden agenda.”
A new “Trump Doctrine” for Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia would enable the president to apply “the art of the deal” to disrupting the current unsuccessful American policy in the region. The Trump Doctrine would extend the Monroe Doctrine to be “the doctrine of the world” and “upset the apple cart” of the failed policies of the past. As with his bipartisan consensus trade policy toward China, the goal would be to permanently end China’s aggression in the region.
Christopher Beres is a practicing attorney who has represented Cambodia in international litigation. He also holds a Master’s Degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He is licensed in New York, Connecticut, Florida, the District of Columbia and for the U.S. Supreme Court.