US imposes arms embargo on Cambodia over China, human rights concerns

Washington sanctioned two Cambodian officials in November 2021 over a US-funded naval base that is increasingly being renovated for use by China. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US government on Wednesday (Dec 8) imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia, citing concerns about human rights and corruption in the South-east Asian nation as well as China's activities there.

The actions taken by the State and Commerce departments will "restrict" access to "less-sensitive military items" and "defence articles and defence services" by Cambodia's military and intelligence agencies, according to a statement.

"The United States remains fully committed to Cambodia's independence and the sovereignty of its people," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said.

"We urge the Cambodian government to make meaningful progress in addressing corruption and human rights abuses, and to work to reduce the influence of the (People's Republic of China) military in Cambodia, which threatens regional and global security."

Ties between the US and Cambodia have been tense following reports in 2019 that Beijing signed a secret agreement allowing its armed forces to exclusively use parts of the country's Ream Naval Base along the Gulf of Thailand.

The Chinese military has denied the reports.

In November, Washington sanctioned two Cambodian officials over a US-funded naval base that is increasingly being renovated for use by China, alleging corruption in the project.

The relationship is particularly sensitive now that Cambodia has assumed the rotating chair of the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), a group the Biden administration has sought to court to counter China's influence.

That means Cambodia will host a series of summits in 2022 that are normally attended by US officials, including President Joe Biden.

Cambodia's long-time leader Hun Sen is one of China's closest partners in Asia, and his government has been dismantling facilities at the Ream base that were built partly with US money and played host to US exercises.

Beijing has been increasingly exerting territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, raising tensions with numerous Asian nations, but Cambodia has increasingly appeared to be an ally.

The State Department separately announced on Wednesday that Counselor Derek Chollet will travel to Cambodia and Indonesia this week to seek cooperation with South-east Asia in pressing the Myanmar junta to cease violence and release political prisoners who are being "unjustly detained".

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was found guilty earlier this week of inciting dissent against the military and flouting Covid-19 rules, in the first case of many against her. The regime later reduced her four-year sentence to two.

Mr Hun Sen said earlier this week that Myanmar's military regime has the right to attend Asean meetings. He also accepted an invitation to visit Myanmar next month, the first government leader to do so since the junta took control in February.

"I have the hammer here but I do not use it yet," Mr Hun Sen said during a speech on Dec 2 likening Asean to a house, and Myanmar to a broken pillar. "Do you leave it in a broken state to satisfy external partners?"

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