Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen: ‘If You Want To Be Independent in Defence: Do Not Use American Weapons’

Following the announcement of U.S. economic sanctions and an arms embargo on Cambodia on December 8, which were put into place due to Western opposition to the country's growing defence and economic ties to China and reported construction of a Chinese military base, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered all American armaments to be withdrawn from service. According to the prime minister, the U.S. decision vindicated his choice in 1994 “not to change the existing Cambodian weapons systems to buy U.S. weapons systems.” He subsequently slammed American arms for failing to provide advantages to their users and for the significant strings attached to sales which undermined clients’ independence in defence. “If you want to be independent in defence, do not use American weapons,” he concluded, echoing multiple similar statements made by leaders across the non-western world over several years. In 2020 for example recently retired Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stated that U.S.-made combat aircraft were “only good for air shows,” but could not be used in combat without Washington's assent as sensitive codes needed for such operations were not shared. The U.S. has frequently leveraged its supply of spare parts to ensure that American equipment cannot be operated when its use contradicts Washington's interests, for example the disabling of the Indonesian F-16 fighter fleet in the 1990s during our heated dispute between Jakarta and Canberra where the U.S. took the Australian side. It has otherwise restricted the kinds of weaponry its systems can deploy in order to ensure that certain countries are restricted to a weaker a defence capability, a notable example being F-16 fighters sold to Egypt and Iraq which lack any viable stand engagement capability.

Prime Minister Hun Sen stated regarding new directives to remove American armaments from service, which did not comprise a significant proportion of the Cambodian inventory: “I would like to issue an order to all armed units to immediately review the weapons and military equipment that Cambodia currently has to collect all U.S. military weapons and equipment, if any, to store it or take it and destroy it. Those who used to use American weapons systems lost wars, such as during the Khmer Republic of Lon Nol, who used American weapons systems and imported a lot of weapons to Cambodia, making Cambodia indebted [to the U.S.].” More recently, U.S. weapons users have lost the war in Afghanistan. I believe in the courage and fighting spirit of the fighters defending Cambodia’s territorial integrity, rather than on weapons alone.” Multiple longstanding U.S. defence clients have increasingly looked at alternatives to avoid extensive restrictions imposed in purchasing Western armaments, including Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Egypt and Iraq among others, with Russian, Chinese and South Korean arms often making gains at the expense of the U.S. and other Western suppliers with similarly restrictive policies.

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