PM: Neutral in US-China ties

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Prime Minister Hun Sen meets with members of the Cambodian diaspora in Washington, DC on Thursday. SPM

A day before the ASEAN-US Special Summit is set to begin, Prime Minister Hun Sen has insisted that Cambodia will remain neutral and not choose between the US and China, as he attempted to assuage US concerns on Chinese military presence in Ream Naval Base.

“We don’t have to choose between the US and China. There is no need to do so. Whether or not you force me to take one, I will refuse,” Hun Sen said while meeting with some 2,000 members of the Cambodian diaspora in Washington, DC.

As ASEAN chair, Hun Sen is co-hosting the summit with US President Joe Biden in Washington from May 12-13.

“Our policy goes hand in hand with that of ASEAN’s. I want to draw a line in that, with any Indo-Pacific or Asia Pacific initiative, Cambodia will abide by three principles: firstly, peace and development, secondly, taking no one as enemy, and thirdly, respecting ASEAN Centrality,” he said.

Hun Sen noted that these three principles have been consistently used by Cambodia as a basis to decide whether the Kingdom would support any regional initiative, and insisted that ASEAN will not support any country that deviates from its own principles.

The premier then turned to Cambodia-US relations, acknowledging that they have reached new heights, despite there being “ups and downs” in the relationship.

He said the good relations have been evidenced through the US establishing an embassy in Cambodia in 2000, shortly after the Kingdom achieved comprehensive peace. He revealed that he would not have approved the construction of the embassy at the site near Wat Phnom for any other country.

Hun Sen also highlighted the increase in trade volume between the two countries as another positive factor in the relationship.

He also used his speech to respond to recent US concerns, expressed by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn on May 12, on what the US suspected to be Chinese military presence at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province. Hun Sen sought simultaneously to assuage and dismiss those concerns, calling it “confusion stemming from misunderstanding”.

He reiterated that the Cambodian Constitution does not allow foreign military presence, and insisted that the Kingdom has no need for foreign troops, saying that the country’s present needs concern economic investment rather than the military.

Hun Sen insisted that Ream Port is used for repair of patrolling vessels, which in the past had to be conducted in Vietnam or Malaysia. He said this had always been his plan since 1986, when he first identified the problem of Cambodia lacking a vessel repair site.

“Cambodia permits any country that wishes to dock there [Ream Port] to do so. The US, France, China, Japan, Australia, the UK, have already docked there. We welcomed them all,” he said.

US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price had noted that Sherman was concerned about “impact on regional security” as regards the possible Chinese presence on the naval base.

Hun Sen noted that this longtime “confusion” from the US side had even prompted former US Vice President Mike Pence to write to him seeking clarification, which he said he had responded to with an explanation.

Cambodia and the US have been postponing their joint military exercises since 2017, with the Kingdom citing a busy political calendar consisting of the commune council elections and the national election taking place the following year. The postponement had raised eyebrows among political analysts, who speculated that Cambodia was in fact realigning itself to China – a hypothesis that was rejected by Hun Sen.

“I speak frankly: why is it so hard to be a friend of the US?” he said. “It should be hard to be an enemy. But why is it hard to be friends with each other?” Hun Sen said.

Yong Kim Eng, president of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, observed that neutrality in foreign policy is important for Cambodia as a country that requires “many friends”.

“Whether it is Cambodia’s relations with the US, or China’s influence on Cambodia or on the ASEAN region at large, what people want to see when it comes to neutrality is the balance of diplomatic relations between all countries, especially the superpower in the region,” he said.

“He [Hun Sen] is correct to say that Cambodia could not opt [to side with] the US or China as we maintain a neutral position. If we are strong in this neutrality, we will not [be dragged] into the geopolitical contest,” he added.

Hun Sen also touched on the Myanmar issue in his wide-ranging discussion, sharing the outcome of his virtual meeting with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the ruling State Administration Council (SAC), on May 2. During the meeting, Min Aung Hlaing reportedly urged Hun Sen, as ASEAN chair, to call on armed groups in Myanmar to sign a ceasefire agreement.

On May 12, Hun Sen called out Myanmar protesters who planned to stage protests against him in the US, saying that such an act was akin to “destroying their own people”.

“If you are protesting against the ASEAN chair, who is doing work to help Myanmar now, it is equivalent to destroying your own people. I want to tell Cambodian people, too, not to get involved in the Myanmar issue,” he said, referring to Cambodians who were said to have planned to join the protest.