Government Downplays Cuts to US Military Aid

The government on Wednesday insisted that its decision to postpone U.S.-backed military assistance programs following the July 28 election would not have a negative impact on relations between the two countries.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has declined to say precisely which of the U.S.-backed military aid programs were postponed, but said Tuesday they involved engagement with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces senior leadership.

Marie Harf, the spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, also said on Tuesday that the decision was not something the U.S. had wanted and noted it had happened in the context of the National Election Committee announcing preliminary results to an election that is currently being disputed by the CPP and CNRP.

Analysts have said the Ministry of National Defense’s decision to put back an undisclosed number of programs with the U.S. could be seen as a diplomatic snub.

Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, insisted that the delay would not be a problem for Cambodia’s international relations amid views that Cambodia took the decision after receiving calls from lawmakers in the U.S. to cut military aid to Cambodia altogether if the national election was deemed unfair.

“The Ministry of National Defense has already made the clarification about this,” he said, referring to comments made by Lieutenant General Nem Sowath, director-general of the Defense Ministry’s general department of policy and foreign affairs, on Tuesday that attempted to play down the delay.

“The relationship between Cambodia and the U.S. is still normal,” Mr. Kuong added.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh did not respond to questions Wednesday.

But Lieutenant General Ros Chhorm, cabinet chief for Defense Minister Tea Banh, said that Cambodian participation in some U.S. military assistance programs, including an air force training scheme, have simply been delayed “because we are forming a government.”

Royal Cambodian Air Force commander Lieutenant General Soeng Samnang, named one specific program that had been delayed.

“A training program that has been postponed is called Pacific Defender,” he said.

According to a statement on the website of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, Cambodian military personnel attended an exchange named Pacific Unity and Pacific Defender at the Andersen Air Force Base on Guam in February 2012.

Cambodian officials, alongside Philippine, Lao, Thai, Mongolian and Vietnamese counterparts, took part in a project that concentrated on exercises such as weap­onry and antiterrorism.

“Throughout the week, attendees conducted discussions on emergency management preparation, weaponry and utilization, surveying and data collection as well as antiterrorism and force protection,” the statement says.

Images from the exercise show air force Lieutenant Colonel San Savoeun and three other Cambodian officials receiving instruction on large automatic weaponry, unexploded ordnance and decontamination techniques.

It is still unclear what other programs are affected by the delay—which the U.S. said was a unilateral decision by Cambodia—or whether it has affected U.S. training of the National Counter Terrorism Special Forces, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Lieutenant General Hun Manet.

Lt. Gen. Sowath on Wednesday again said that putting back the programs was an issue of resources.

“We have postponed with the U.S. because we need to prepare forces and equipment [to join training],” he said, declining to elaborate further.

But observers have said the move appeared to be pre-emptive on Cambodia’s part, after U.S. lawmakers last month discussed withdrawing all aid to Cambodia and after the State Department took a strong stance on allegations of irregularities at the July 28 national election.

Mr. Hun Sen has already invited the U.S. to go ahead and cut aid and watch Cambodia’s main benefactor, China, meet any unmet needs.

“Cambodia’s decision to postpone some military cooperation with the United States is risky, which helps explain why Cambodian officials have been downplaying the issue since announcing the move,” John Ciorciari, a Cambodia academic and assistant professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said in an email.

“The Cambodian government is evidently trying to convey that it is neither dependent on U.S. assistance nor wants defense cooperation to end,” he said, adding that Cambodia would not want to become overly reliant on China.

“Too much reliance on any one source for external assistance exposes a small state like Cambodia to unwanted levels of foreign influence.”

Although they would not say so publicly, Cambodia’s neighbors would be concerned about any perceived move away from the West by Cambodia, Mr. Ciorciari said.

“Most of Cambodia’s Asean neighbors are not keen for Cambodia to drift too far toward China, especially in the military arena and in the context of the ongoing South China Sea disputes,” he said.

Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Australian De­fense Force Academy in Canberra, said Cambodia would have some support in the region from countries that agree with its stance on non-intervention from foreign states.

“Cambodia’s actions have been couched in ambiguity and are not directly confrontational,” he said.

“[Cambodia’s actions] do not appear rash or an over reaction. They are a mild shot across the bow to warn the U.S. and European countries of the consequences of pushing their criticism.”

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