The visit of the US’ second-ranking diplomat to Cambodia last week is prompting Cambodia to think about being “pushed to the wall” and forced to choose sides between the world’s two competing superpowers – China and the US.

It must be clear that Cambodia is not interested in taking sides. So pressuring Cambodia to choose sides will likely backfire. Navigating through the intensifying US-China rivalry, of course, is the top challenge for Cambodian policy makers.

In the two-hour meeting between US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman and Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on June 1, Sherman used words that Cambodia considers as “threatening” or “bullying”.

“She used diplomatic language, but the content of the message was an open threat,” a senior government official said later. He added: “We are now very near to the position that we always wanted to avoid, that is, to have to choose a side.” According to the official, Cambodia is exhausted by continued US allegations over China’s military presence in the country’s coastal province of Preah Sihanouk, a popular town among Chinese businesses and development.

In the meeting, Sherman “expressed serious concerns about the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] military presence and construction of facilities at Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. She sought clarification on the demolition of the two US-funded buildings at Ream without notification or explanation and observed that a PRC military base in Cambodia would undermine Cambodia’s sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations”.

Sherman, meanwhile, urged Cambodia to maintain an “independent and balanced foreign policy, in the best interests of the Cambodian people”. The statements and behaviour are largely viewed as “hot offensive”, not “charm offensive” at all.

During the meeting with Sherman, Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected an accusation of a “secret agreement” between Cambodia and China concerning the Ream Naval Base, and he even “asked the US side to show him that ‘secret agreement’, a request to which Sherman responded: “We don’t have it, but we have seen it.”

Regarding Sherman’s claim that there was no notification or explanation about the demolition of the two US-funded buildings at Ream, Cambodia did inform the US military attaché in July 2019 about the relocation of the National Committee for Maritime Security Tactical HQ to allow infrastructure development and security enhancement.

Among the reasons behind the decision, the official said the site was too small, limited in capacity for multi-agency operations, had no docking facilities, limited for further expansion and presented difficulties for non-military personnel to work in that particular restricted area.

Carefully analysing the statements by Sherman, it is clear that the US does not believe the explanations Cambodia has made regarding the Ream Naval Base. And it is quite certain that the US won’t believe any future explanations either, even as Cambodia allows the US defence attaché to visit the naval base.

Some Cambodian analysts argue that the US has applied “strategic narrative trap” to gain advantage on Cambodia with regard to the “alleged” Chinese military bases in Cambodia. The US will likely continue to put pressures on Cambodia and develop coordinated regional measures to deter China from unilaterally changing the status quo and challenging the US supremacy in the region.

The US is likely ready to sanction Cambodia on the basis of “her accusations” based on “her” information, no matter what the true situation is. Cambodia again becomes the victim of the strategic narrative trap of a superpower. It needs to remember that the US lied to the whole world about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. They also could lie again to punish Cambodia for being too close to China.

Cambodia has been trying to diversify its strategic and economic partnerships with regional and extra-regional partners, including the US. Cambodia wishes to have good relationship with the US – many examples could be cited, from the offering of prime land for the US embassy in Phnom Penh to humanitarian cooperation on the missing in action and prisoners of war.

US companies in Cambodia have done very well. And more US firms are interested in investing in this emerging market. Hopefully, the US business community can lobby the US government to have a more accurate and objective perspective in its engagement with Cambodia based on realistic point of views and evidences.

The relationship between the two countries depends on both sides. It needs two to tango. But the state of relationship between a big country and a small country depends more on the big, the strong – in the US-Cambodia case, it is on the strong.

Cambodia, with limited resources and capacity, does not have sufficient leverage to change the perspective and behaviour of the US in its favour. Cambodia has been on the defensive modus operandi.

On transparency regarding Cambodia’s readiness to allow fact-finding over the alleged Chinese military presence, Cambodia has already presented facts and offered visits to military compounds – a gesture that should be applauded because generally no sovereign country would allow such a visit as this is a matter of national security. Perhaps it would be a wishful thinking that the US will be convinced after the visit. Regardless, this is the political will of the Cambodian side to promote trust and confidence building measures with the U.S.

The US needs to have a different view on Cambodia’s foreign policy. The Kingdom’s principles of independence, non-alignment and neutrality have been firmly adhered to. Hedging and diversification have been cautiously implemented. If the US wishes to help Cambodia maintain independence and sovereignty, it should offer this small country with strategic space to manoeuvre and economic opportunities to develop.

Thong Mengdavid is research fellow at Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies (MCSS) of Asian Vision Institute (AVI). The views expressed are his own.