Amid a widening gulf in U.S.-Cambodia relations, the U.S. Embassy said on Monday that a Navy unit specializing in humanitarian work had been forced to leave the country, imperiling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of community projects, including the construction of maternity wards and school bathrooms.
A farewell ceremony for the “Seabees” unit—a name derived from “C.B.,” short for Construction Battalion—was held at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on Monday for the group’s final 16-person cohort, said David Josar, the embassy’s deputy spokesman.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia officially notified the Embassy of its decision last week to postpone indefinitely the mission of the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, which has been carrying out community service projects in underserved areas of Cambodia since 2008,” Mr. Josar said in an email.
The U.S. military has been increasingly shut out of Cambodia over the past several months, including the cancellation of major joint exercises.
The annual “Angkor Sentinel” exercises with the U.S. Army were suspended in January until at least 2019, while “Carat” drills with the U.S. Navy were also dropped. The Cambodian government justified the change by saying it needed to focus its forces on security for the upcoming elections.
The moves have been widely interpreted as Cambodia shifting its allegiances from traditional Western allies toward China, which has showered Cambodia with aid and military equipment in recent years and does not demand that Cambodia uphold human rights or democracy. In December, a nine-day joint Chinese-Cambodian military exercise, “Golden Dragon 2016,” marshalled 1,000 soldiers.
Mr. Josar said the Seabees had completed more than $5 million in construction projects in 11 provinces over nearly a decade, including hospital improvements and water wells, and had worked with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and local communities.
“The government’s decision cancels more than $800,000 in planned projects in eight provinces,” he said, explaining that the unit had been scheduled to build six school bathroom facilities and two maternity wards this year at a cost of $265,000.
“The Cambodian government did not offer a reason for their decision. We refer you to the government for an explanation,” Mr. Josar said.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat, however, said he was unaware of the Seabees’ expulsion, and Navy Commander Tea Vinh said the U.S. unit was merely taking a hiatus.
“They are stopping the projects. Now they’re going back to their country for vacation,” he said. “They’ll still help us to build navy offices or schools.”
Nem Sowath, director-general of the Defense Ministry’s department of policy and foreign affairs, said he did not know about any recent communications with the U.S. Embassy regarding the Seabees.
John Blaxland, a professor of international security at Australian National University, said Cambodia was at the vanguard of a “competitive game” being played out in various corners of Southeast Asia.
“Elsewhere, there is an awareness that conceding too much to one side, China, narrows strategic options further down the track,” Mr. Blaxland said in an email.
“It is with this in mind
that Cambodia’s neighbours in
ASEAN remain eager to keep the US military engaged, while at the same time being wary of being too outspokenly sympathetic or pro US in their pronouncements and actions.”