During a visit to Cambodia, a senior U.S. diplomat expressed “serious concerns” about China’s growing military influence in the country, while calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to end a years-long political crackdown that has cowed most meaningful sources of opposition.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman yesterday became the most senior U.S. official to visit Cambodia since Secretary of State John Kerry came to the country in 2016. During a one-day stop in Phnom Penh, part of a diplomatic tour that will also take her to Bangkok and Jakarta, Sherman held a two-hour meeting with Hun Sen, which she described on Twitter as “candid.”

Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia in various guises since 1985, during which time he has gradually tightened the screws on his opponents, while gravitating toward China for diplomatic and financial backing. Over the past few years, the U.S. has become alarmed by numerous reports, of varying degrees of credibility, that China is seeking a permanent military presence on Cambodian soil, either at the Ream Naval Base, on the country’s south coast, or at a Chinese-funded tourism mega-complex nearby.

Last year, Washington expressed worries about reports that the Cambodian Navy had demolished a U.S.-funded building at Ream Naval Base. Cambodia acknowledged the demolition of the building, which housed patrol boats, but said it did so to allow for further expansion and denied that it had razed the building on Beijing’s orders.

According to a statement from the U.S. State Department, Sherman expressed her concern to Hun Sen about China’s military presence at Ream, asked for clarity about the demolished buildings, and “observed that a PRC military base in Cambodia would undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact U.S.-Cambodia relations.”

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After pointedly noting the trade benefits that Cambodia enjoys under Washington’s General System of Preferences, Sherman warned Cambodia’s leadership to “maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy, in the best interests of the Cambodian people.”

While the U.S. government has cited “credible reports” that China is set to gain access to an area of Ream under its exclusive control, Cambodian officials claim that the Chinese government is merely helping with the renovation of the base, and continue to deny that they would permit a permanent Chinese presence on Cambodian soil. Hun Sen reportedly repeated these denials in his meeting with Sherman.

While in Phnom Penh, Sherman also took part in a roundtable event with members of Cambodia’s besieged civil society, and held a meeting with opposition leader Kem Sokha, the head of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party. Sokha was arrested in 2017 on charges of treason, accused of fomenting the overthrow of Hun Sen’s government in partnership with foreign governments, a charge that still stands despite his release from custody.

During her meeting with Hun Sen, Sherman also “emphasized the importance of human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms as integral to our bilateral relationship” and “called on authorities to promptly drop the politically motivated charges against members of the political opposition, journalists, and activists.”

However, the challenge for the U.S. government is that as long as Hun Sen remains in power, the two goals pursued by Sherman’s trip – drawing the Cambodian government away from China and pushing democratic reforms – will be very much in tension.

As I’ve argued at length previously, human rights and democratization have long been tied up in complex ways with the country’s bitter domestic political rivalries. From one side, democratic principles have been mobilized for three decades by Hun Sen’s opponents in order to attract support from foreign governments, particularly the United States.

From the other side, the Cambodian government has tended to view American invocations of human rights and liberal values with skepticism, noting not just the sordid accommodations that governed U.S. policy toward Cambodia in the 1980s (a formative decade for Hun Sen and his colleagues), but also the fact that U.S. human rights policy fluctuates wildly with the degrees of perceived U.S. interests at stake, which in Cambodia’s case have long been perceived as marginal. (As Peter Beinart, the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, noted recently, “The Biden administration isn’t seeking to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. It’s seeking to put the language of human rights at the center of America’s conflicts with its foes.”)

I argued last year that these two tendencies have contributed to a situation in which “the lines between democratic advocacy and regime change became muddled. Soon enough, anyone seeking to advance democracy and human rights was, by definition, opposed to CPP rule.” As such, they also created a strong incentive for the government to identify an alternative patron that was willing to offer political and economic support without explicit political conditions: namely, China.

Sherman’s visit to Phnom Penh, ostensibly aimed at righting relations between Washington and Phnom Penh, thus encapsulates a long-standing contradiction in U.S. policy toward Cambodia.

Intensifying its pressure on the Hun Sen government over human rights and democracy issues stands a good chance of merely underscoring the suspicions that have done so much to push Cambodia toward Beijing in the first place. Conversely, drawing the CPP government away from Beijing will require a degree of pragmatism similar to that which has recently guided U.S. policy toward non-democratic and illiberal partners like Vietnam and India.

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This does not necessarily mean abandoning questions of values altogether. But it does involve some acknowledgement of the extent to which these issues have become politicized in Cambodia, and the part that U.S. and Western policy has played in bringing relations to this point. There is no clear answer for those wishing to encourage the growth of democratic institutions and liberal values in Cambodia. Absent a rebalancing of interests and values, however, U.S.-Cambodia relations will likely remain stuck in their present cul-de-sac.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the most recent senior U.S. diplomat to visit Cambodia was President Barack Obama in 2012. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry visited the country in January 2016.

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