Cambodia has sent the U.S. Navy packing, the U.S. embassy in Cambodia reports.
The U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion is leaving Cambodia as the Southeast Asian nation cancels the Seabees program, ending around 20 planned aid projects, reports Reuters.
“Last week, the Royal Government of Cambodia notified the Embassy of its decision to postpone indefinitely the Seabees program,” the embassy explained on its Facebook page Monday. “We are sad to see the Seabees go, but proud of their accomplishments over the last nine years.”
The Cambodian defense ministry said it is unaware of such a decision.
The sudden move could be a byproduct of stronger ties between Cambodia and China. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has a generally-positive view of President Donald Trump, but U.S.-Cambodian relations have faced challenges, largely due to past U.S. criticisms in response to human rights violations and corruption in Cambodia, as well as America’s dismissal of calls by the Cambodian government to forgive $500 million in debts.
Beijing may soon bestow sister-city status on Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Furthermore, China and Cambodia have increased bilateral cooperation in both economic and military spheres. For instance, construction began Tuesday on a new $157 million sports stadium in Cambodia; the project, which is being funded by China, will be used to host the Southeast Asia Games in 2023. China is also investing in other local programs.
China and Cambodia conducted joint naval drills for the first time last year. China has also trained Cambodia’s military and equipped Cambodian troops with weapons and vehicles. Cambodia cancelled joint joint drills with the U.S. in January. The government suggested that the cancellation was a scheduling issue, not a result of closer ties with China.
Beijing is drawing regional countries into its sphere of influence as its power grows. China has been strengthening its ties to major U.S. security allies in Asia.
President Rodrigo Duterte has steered the Philippines away from its long-time ally and towards China, which has taken advantage of tensions between the Duterte administration and Washington. In Thailand, the ruling junta, which received support from China and criticism from the U.S. in the wake of a coup a few years ago, has been purchasing arms in greater numbers from China. The Thai cabinet approved Tuesday the purchase of 10 Chinese VT-4 tanks to replace ageing American-made M-41 tanks, which the country has used for four decades.
It is unclear why the Cambodian government ended the Seabees program; however, rising Chinese influence in the region could be a possible explanation, along with residual tensions. The motive behind Cambodia’s actions are currently unclear though.
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