US-Cambodian Relations Sour Further as Military Academy Program Cancelled

Photo shows U.S. and Cambodian forces at the official opening of the Angkor Sentinel 2016. Photo: US Embassy in Cambodia.

After the US deemed Cambodian students ineligible for free tuition at military academies, analysts fear faster deterioration of relations between the US and Cambodia

PHNOM PENH--The Cambodian government on July 2 announced that it would provide financial support to six Cambodian students enrolled at military academies in the US, following the US’s decision to end Cambodia’s eligibility for its military academy program.

In a press statement, Cambodian Defense Ministry noted that the Cambodian government will communicate with the US side in arranging the support for the Cambodian students. 

“Noting the difficulties encountered by the six cadets due to the termination of the US’s obligation in providing tuition waiver for the six cadets and in spirit of responsibility for the future and for the benefit of Cambodian cadets, the Royal Government of Cambodia will be accountable for tuition payment for them until they successfully finish their studies,” the statement read. 

The move came after the US said that Cambodia has lost legitimacy to gain such military support due to the reduction in traditional military-to-military relations between the two countries, according to VOA report.

Currently, there are six Cambodian military students undertaking their studies at the US military academy—two of them at United States Military Academy West Point, one at United States Naval Academy, two at United States Air Force Academy and one at United States Coast Guard Academy. Some of them are already at their final year.

Long Tola, who is a first-year student at the Air Force Academy, expressed his gratitude and thankfulness for the Cambodian government for sponsoring him and other five students to continue their academic journey. 

“I would like to express my deep gratitude and appreciation for the intervention and attention of the Cambodian government, especially Samdech Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia, who is always concerned about the wellbeing and the difficulties of people inside and outside the country, Tola said in his open letter.

He added that he was determined to spare no efforts to achieve greater results and accomplishments in his academic journey.

“I look forward to excitement at the prospect of returning with honor to work for the motherland,” he continued.

Long Tola is a first-year student at the Air Force Academy. Photo from Facebook. 

Relations between the US and Cambodia have been worsening following Cambodia’s refusal to allow US military attache Marcus M. Ferrara full access to the Ream Naval base.

The base has been a source of tension since 2019 when the Wall Street Journal reported that Cambodia had signed a secret deal giving the Chinese Navy access to the Gulf of Thailand facility. Cambodia maintains that the report is untrue.

The visit to the base was granted by Prime Minister Hun Sen following his meeting with visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who visited the country on June 1.

Politically Motivated Decision 

The US’s decision to end its military academy program for Cambodia was largely unexpected, but comes at a time when US-Cambodian relations are deteriorating due to Cambodia’s perceived alliance with China.

Ro Vannak, co​-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, noted that the decision is     

an undesirable move driven by the increasingly fierce great power competition between China and the US.

“The scholarship program revocation for Cambodian students is really regrettable as they [the students] fall victim to the current ongoing geopolitical competition between China and the US in Cambodia,” Vannak said. 

He further explained that the relations between Cambodia and the US can quickly change—for the better or worse—depending on Cambodia’s relations with China.

“As the ties between Cambodia and China become increasingly close, Cambodia’s relations with the US will face more serious problems,” he added.

China has become the leading source of foreign investment in Cambodia and has increasingly played a greater role in military cooperation, with Cambodia cancelling joint training exercises with the US in 2017, choosing to partner with China instead.

Po Sovinda, a PhD scholar at Griffith University in Australia, concurred that the move was taken to broaden US pressure on Cambodia to alter its course as the country moves closer into China’s orbit. 

“It appears that the US believes that it is impossible now to push Cambodia to distance itself from China as there have been repetitive actions taken by the Cambodian government,” Sovinda said.

“It is a grave concern for the US, and this led to this decision. But it also affects virtue and morality when such decision has been made.”

Scholarship Revocation Just the Beginning

Experts agreed that the revocation of scholarship waivers for Cambodian students carried out by the US is just the beginning, warning that more glitches in bilateral relations are expected. They warned that more unpleasant decisions could come later, which will put bilateral relations at a much greater risk.  

Sovinda said that it is rational to anticipate more problems in the future concerning the relations between the two countries following the latest decision. 

But he went on to note that it remains positive that the economic relations have so far not been impacted by the ongoing political fallout.

“But it will be very perilous when the US administration decides to take another step to restrict Cambodia’s exports to the US. If it decides that way, it will be, of course, dangerous for both Cambodian people and the country as whole,” Sovinda stressed.  

Vannak agreed that there is a chance that the bilateral relations between both sides will plummet further.

“I think the bilateral relations will worsen when the US administration and the houses vote in favor of demanding Cambodia pay off the debt the country has owed the US since the Khmer Republic led by Lon Nol regime,” he explained.  

Cambodia now owes the US up to $700 million, including around $600 million interest, and the Cambodian government has repeatedly requested the US administration to consider writing off the debt calling it a “dirty debt.”

In addition to using war-time debt to hassle Cambodia to alter its foreign policy position, Vannak also said that the US will amplify its concerns on human rights issues in Cambodia including the arrest of human defenders, environmental activists as well as restriction taken against civil society groups.   

“Therefore, what should be the most concerning issue is the competition between major powers can drag Cambodia back into a geopolitical trap which can potentially create tragedy as we used to see in the past,” Vannak stressed.   

More Neutral Stance Needed

As the future of the relations between the two looks bleak, Vannak suggested that there should be more adjustment in Cambodia’s position.

Currently, he noted, it is impossible for the country to change course as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party cannot extricate itself from its growing dependence on China—both politically and economically.

But, he added, it is still possible for Cambodia to correct its foreign policy course by bringing back a strong political opposition and doing more to unify the country so that it’s more able to withstand external pressures.

“As long as Cambodia continues to be led by a single-party government, any decision in relation to foreign policy will remain narrow and difficult to avoid being victim of the great power competition,” Vannak said.  

“But it remains possible for Cambodia to turn away from China, and it may require internal unity and balance of power with revival of strong opposition party,” he said.

In addition to foreign policy modification, Sovinda highlighted that the Cambodian leadership may also need to reconsider avoiding making statements that appear to be biased towards any specific country.

“In any public events, our leader[s] should not demonstrate its appreciation for this or that particular country exclusively without mentioning other countries which also have been supporting Cambodia,” he stressed.

He went on to argue that if the supports provided by other countries goes unacknowledged, it only makes them feel that their financial assistances and support provided to Cambodia are not valued.

“Instead, all parties involved in assisting our country’s development should be appreciated and valued,” Sovinda concluded.

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