The Debate | Opinion

Tit for Tat: The Fall-out From the US Approach to Politics and Policy in Cambodia

Washington was right to censure Phnom Penh in its latest Trafficking in Persons Report. But the U.S. government risks entangling legitimate criticism with geopolitical tensions.

Tit for Tat: The Fall-out From the US Approach to Politics and Policy in Cambodia

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken launches the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report in Washington, D.C., July 19, 2022.

Credit: Twitter/Secretary Antony Blinken

The U.S. State Department’s Annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, released last month, is the premier global index on the state of human trafficking. It includes rich contextual analysis, targeted recommendations, and, notably three tiers of ranked performance for 188 countries each year. The lowest grade (Tier 3) opens the door to a wide swath of potential sanctions and penalties.

The Tier 3 downgrade for Cambodia this year came as little surprise to close observers of the situation. Equally unsurprising were the immediate cries of foul play by numerous high-ranking members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

From the perspective of a civil society observer, the report’s status quo diagnosis appears closely representative of the situation on the ground. The specific recommendations in the TIP report seem well-founded and mirror closely those of years past, which remain largely unaddressed.

Thus, viewed through a technical lens, the downgrade of Cambodia to the TIP Report’s lowest level is a fairly straightforward case.

Yet, two non-mutually exclusive realities appear to be at play here. The adamant repudiation of the report’s findings and credibility by CPP spokespeople must be viewed as more than simple obfuscation or belated attempts at face-saving. While these certainly explain part of the reaction, they fail to tell the full story.

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At the core of the CPP’s complaint is the idea that Cambodia’s ranking is part of a larger paternalistic policy of “punishment” for the country’s increasingly inseparable bond with China. In light of the highest profile U.S. government policy moves towards Cambodia over the past year, this argument has at least some face validity.

In August 2021, USAID pulled funding for its long-running Greening Prey Lang project over concerns that the host government was doing little to curb the very deforestation the project was intended to mitigate. Overwhelming evidence of official complicity in illegal logging had been well documented for years and, like the TIP report downgrade, this decision could have been made long ago using the same rationale.

However, it was not. The decision to cut funding was announced just weeks after rumors surfaced about a Chinese-funded expansion to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base.

Then, late last year, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two additional Cambodian tycoons. The sanctions were quickly followed by an advisory to U.S. citizens that any investment activity in the Kingdom is highly likely to be unwittingly complicit with illicit finance, illegal logging, or human rights abuses.

Again, there is nothing particularly controversial per se about this claim or the sanctioning of known corrupt actors. The endemic nature of all three issues in Cambodia is widely documented and could have been easily – and impactfully – made years ago. However, again, the timing was closely aligned with further reports of progress on the Cambodian-Chinese naval collaboration at the Ream Naval Base. Moreover, the two men sanctioned were cited by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control specifically for their involvement in the Ream contracting process.

Lastly, the release of the TIP Report and the unveiling of Cambodia’s long-anticipated Tier 3 downgrade comes just weeks after public confirmation and groundbreaking of the same military collaboration. In fairness, the TIP Report is released at the same time each year, but that fact does little to dilute the apparent messaging.

The argument here is not that the status quo in Cambodia failed to merit the deployment of these three distinct policy tools. Rather, it is that the tools themselves now appear more like responses to U.S. geopolitical power considerations rather than independent or reliable assertions about the various situations in question. This was also the core argument of a recent CSIS report about U.S. foreign policy in Cambodia.

The obvious high-level impact of this approach is pushing Cambodia ever closer to China’s political orbit if such momentum is not yet already a forgone conclusion.

One conceivable win for U.S. foreign policy emanating from such a strategic posture appears to be that of regional deterrence. Any reasonable observer could have predicted CPP’s vitriolic response to the TIP downgrade. Yet, perhaps Cambodia’s neighbors might think twice before allowing China to build a naval base along their coast – or undertake similar moves toward Beijing.

All this might seem like a happy coincidence, a rare moment where Washington’s geopolitical interests happened to align with the “correct” determination on various policy instruments. However, there are three notable and negative spillover effects of this approach and signaling.

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First is the continued diluting of the policy instruments in question. Observing governments may indeed gather from the example being made of Cambodia that adherence to U.S. foreign policy objectives is the key to maintaining their funding, index status, etc. However, in so doing, they become increasingly incentivized to prioritize geopolitical considerations over needed policy reforms.

Second is a substantial complication of the situation on the ground for civil society organizations (particularly U.S.-based ones) working toward reforms in collaboration with the Cambodian government. As these critical issues are politicized, momentum for progress is slowed. This polarization also increases NGOs’ exposure to reprisal – as was the case following the Prey Lang pull-out.

Finally, the politicization of these policy instruments may lead to missed opportunities for unified multi-stakeholder advocacy on particularly egregious issues.

In the case of the TIP Report, we are at an inflection point whereby the interests of the U.S. government, Cambodia’s most immediate neighbors, and, behind closed doors, Beijing, are all reasonably aligned and alarmed regarding an emerging human trafficking issue. Across Cambodia, Chinese organized crime syndicates are trafficking large numbers of Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Philippine, Burmese, and Vietnamese workers into abusive compounds and forcing them to perpetrate a range of sophisticated scams. Preliminary prevalence estimates on the number of forced labor victims are staggering, with the downstream victims of these scams reaching perhaps into the millions. This unchecked criminality now poses significant domestic political issues for Cambodia’s most important bilateral partners.

The 2022 TIP report could have been a rallying cry for these actors who are independently working to assert influence on the government to address the serious issue of human trafficking in Cambodia. Instead, Cambodia’s downgrade to Tier 3 is more likely to increase the current tension in U.S.-Cambodia relations and reduce the likelihood of a near-term solution to a common problem.

For these reasons amongst others, greater independence between U.S. geopolitics and targeted policy instruments is needed. Though U.S. regional influence is waning, the desperate need for reform on vital issues of human concern is not.