US aid for Cambodia to come with conditions: What does it mean for the bilateral relationship?

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The US has placed conditions on its aid to Cambodia over the kingdom’s human rights violations and growing ties to China. The change is not likely to achieve any major changes unless the US comes with an offer that matches China’s commitment to the current regime in Cambodia.

By Umair Jamal

The United States 2021 budget outlines around US$85 million in new funding for Cambodia.

However, to access these funds, Cambodia will have to demonstrate that it is making efforts to “assert its sovereignty against interference by the People’s Republic of China” and stop rights abuses.

Since the 1990s, Cambodia has relied on foreign assistance to meet its budget needs. According to the US Department of State, nearly 30-40% of the government’s budget is donor aid.

US relations with Cambodia have become increasingly strained in recent years due to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s suppression of the political opposition and his growing embrace of China.

China’s economic support has given Hun Sen more political room to maneuver domestically. In return, Cambodia has appeared increasingly keen to accommodate or support Beijing’s positions on regional issues. This is not likely to change unless the US comes up with a better offer that can supplant China’s role for the Hun Sen administration.

The new US aid money doesn’t come close to China’s funding for Cambodia in recent years—and as Beijing’s funding comes without any major conditions concerning human rights, the US will still struggle to balance China’s growing influence in Cambodia.

History of international aid to Cambodia

Since the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, which put an end to 20 years of conflict and unrest in Cambodia, the country has received substantial global support for its growth and post-conflict rehabilitation work. For instance, after the general election in 1993, at least 35 official donors and hundreds of civil society organizations moved in to provide development aid to Cambodia. This has included direct aid, loans and grants from individual countries, international organizations and private donors.

As of 2018, Cambodia had received roughly US$20.68 billion in foreign aid since the early 1990s. Japan, the Asia Development Bank (ADB) and the US have all been major donors, alongside the European Union and Southeast Asian countries.

But in the past decade, China has sharply increased its financial support for Cambodia. By 2017, China had become Cambodia’s top donor, with contributions standing at US$3.1 billion, followed by $2.8 billion from Japan and $1.3 billion from the US.

This aid, and Beijing’s willingness to ignore human rights violations and crackdowns on the opposition, has pushed Cambodia closer to China.

Photo: User:RCarmy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How bad are human rights conditions in Cambodia?

Under Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia has virtually become a one party state. The Paris Peace Accords, reached by domestic and international stakeholders, had laid out a vision for Cambodia’s future. Under the accords, the primary objective of Cambodia’s rebuilding was to focus on respect for human rights and fundamental freedom for all Cambodians. However, instead of serving the public, Hun Sen has used his 35 years in power to do everything to protect his regime.

Human Rights Watch has long documented Hun Sen’s egregious human rights record. In a 2018 report, “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen: A Long History of Rights Abuses by Hun Sen’s Generals,” Human Rights Watch documented his use of 12 high-ranking officials in Cambodia’s gendarmerie, police and military to commit serious human rights violations.

“Over the years, Hun Sen has created and developed a core of security force officers who have ruthlessly and violently carried out his orders,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director. “The importance of Cambodia’s generals has become even more apparent with the massive crackdown in the past two years against journalists, political opponents and anti-government protesters,” he added.

Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party had no real competition in the 2018 general election after the country’s Supreme Court banned the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, ordering it to dissolve.

This has raised concerns among international donors, including the US. In 2018, Washington decided against funding the election and called the election “flawed.”

While human rights issues have influenced US policy towards Cambodia, this may not be the decisive reason behind Washington’s choice to add conditions to its aid.

Is the China factor really driving Washington’s Cambodia policy?

Historically, the US has supported far worse dictatorial regimes across the globe, on conditions that they allied themselves with Washington’s broader security and political interests. 

During the Cold War era, Washington supported brutal dictatorial regimes in countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Zaire, Egypt and Nicaragua. On other occasions, the US has allegedly used covert means to remove democratically-elected governments and bring to power pro‐​American leaders and parties. This is evident from Washington’s actions in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Pakistan and elsewhere.

In this context, Cambodia’s tilt towards China has added more to Washington’s worries than any rights abuse within the kingdom. US foreign policy dynamics quickly become more complicated in countries with authoritarian leaders that have little or no tolerance for Washington’s questions about human rights and democracy. Not long ago, Hun Sen said in a statement that “China respects the political decisions of Cambodia. They build bridges and roads, and there are no complicated conditions.”

The case of Cambodia serves as a warning of what Beijing’s growing security and economic presence in Southeast Asia will mean for America’s interests in the region in the long run. In March, while Cambodia banned travelers from Europe and the US to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the country welcomed hundreds of Chinese soldiers for military drills. There are also reports that Cambodia may very well serve as China’s new military base in Southeast Asia. The US recently blacklisted a Chinese developer that is building a major port, airport and resortcomplex over allegations that the development will be used to host the Chinese military. Earlier this year, Cambodia demolished a US-built facility on the country’s largest naval base. “We have concerns that razing the facility may be tied to Cambodia government plans for hosting People’s Republic of China (PRC) military assets and personnel at Ream Naval Base,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

US President Donald Trump’s four years in office have only allowed China to further deepen its foothold in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, Trump’s America First foreign policy tagline has not had much room for human rights and democracy. It should not come as a surprise that 72% of Southeast Asians believe that the US image has been tainted in the region since Trump came to power four years ago. Further, it’s not a surprise that many diplomats and the governments they serve in Southeast Asia hoped for a Trump victory in the US Presidential election because he has shown little interest in human rights issues that will likely get attention from the White House under President-elect Joe Biden. A Biden White House is not likely to change US policy on the big geopolitical issues facing Southeast Asia. However, there will be an increased focus on human rights which could cause countries to drift further towards China and away from the US, as the two superpowers jostle for dominance in the Indo-Pacific

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15