US Congressman Ted Yoho wrote in his blog on June 28 “Why Cambodia matters for Americans” and quoted Alexis de Tocqueville who once said that, “the inhabitants of these different countries, notwithstanding the dissimilarity of language, of customs, and of laws, nevertheless resemble each other in their equal dread of war and their common love of peace.”
For Cambodians, it is sceptical that Congressman Yoho would share the “equal dread of war and common love of peace.” There is no way that American friends can understand Cambodians’ dread of war considering US actions against Cambodia in the past and even the present.
Congressman Yoho’s comment just rekindles old memories when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was brought down by a coup d’etat in 1970 on account of his closeness with the communist China. Cambodia was helpless for 30 years since then. Worse still, Cambodian survivors were sanctioned by the US after the brutal Khmer Rouge period.
It is inevitable that we now have to ask the most feared question: “Will history repeat itself?” Will the US impose sanctions or take other action against Cambodia, again, for its alleged closeness with China?
From a political perspective, Congressman Yoho’s various arguments have flaws on two major accounts.
Firstly it is on domestic interference in Cambodian politics. The US is now conducting a Special Counsel investigation on Russian interference in their 2016 election, led by a Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
With just weeks ahead of Cambodian general election, Congressman Yoho’s comment is a flagrant interference in Cambodian politics. There is no such thing as a supranational probe on electoral legitimacy. Should we then say that the US election in 2016 is illegitimate if the probe finds that Russian interference is real? Why the double standards, here? If Russia’s interference is unacceptable, why is US interference then welcomed by the so-called bleeding hearts out to discredit Cambodia internationally?
On another account, Congressman Yoho seems to be muddled between Cambodia and China as well as Cambodian domestic politics with the issues of the South China Sea.
Mixing up Cambodia with China is like confusing an ant with an elephant. The last justification on interference in Cambodia’s affairs is always about China. How could one pick up on an ant when their last fight is an elephant? How could they expect that the elephant would back down when the ant disappears?
Columnist Soun Nimeth drew our attention to the concept of “survival interest” which is based on a simple question that, if a country is under attack, who would they go to? To be more specific, if Cambodia or the Philippines or Vietnam is invaded, who would they go to when their self-defence is critical? This question explains the rationale of those states’ behavior over their “survival interest.”
Congressman Yoho should stop pretending that the US is the saviour in issues pertaining to the South China Sea. The Philippines is the first country that can never buy that argument. As an ally, will the US intervene if the Philippines is under attack? The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte already said last year that there was no assurance that the US would remain on the side of the Southeast Asian nation if war broke out.
“Do you expect me to fight China in a war? Do I have the cruise missiles for hitting them?… it’s going to be a massacre,” he said.
“What will we arm ourselves with if there’s a war? Will we resort to slapping each other? I couldn’t even buy myself a rifle. It was given to me. So how will we even fight with the Chinese?”
This is totally different from Japan which has received an assurance of protection from the US.
“Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and article five [of the security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands,” President Barack Obama said during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April 2014.
As it is, the Philippines and Vietnam are not as lucky as Japan.
If Chinese aggression is real, the dispatch of a carrier of the Pacific Fleet close to the contesting areas would have sent a strong signal of military deterrence against the Chinese.
It is worth noting that building an artificial island in the South China Sea is definitely not a small engineering feat. If the Chinese really did so, why didn’t the US stop China from bringing in mega engineering machineries to the contesting areas in the first place? After all, didn’t the US claim that the maritime area is supportive of freedom of navigation?
Professor James Curran was straightforward on the non-assuring behavior of the US over the South China Sea.
“The question is whether it offers a convincing enough life raft for regional allies as they continue to compare the rhetoric and intent of reassurance from Washington with the reality of Beijing’s growing assertiveness – not to mention China’s own longstanding historical claims on the contested territories in the South China Sea. [US Defence Secretary] James Mattis was clear, principled and purposeful about the possible consequences for China if it [US] pushed on. But he also said that no military action is currently being contemplated by the United States, in effect conceding that Washington is no longer prepared to ‘pay any price’ or ‘bear any burden’ in its ‘priority theatre’. That unnerves key allies,” he wrote.
From the perspective of small states, one can only see that the US has done nothing to mitigate the alleged military aggression of China other than instigating smaller states to commit suicide for the US’ cause of superpower rivalry with China.
Congressman Yoho should stop spreading the illusion that the US is the savior. Rhetoric alone does not help people face reality on the ground.
Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh.