As Cambodia is increasingly pulled into China ’s orbit, the United States should refrain from punishing Phnom Penh while simultaneously expecting it to help. This is especially true when Washington needs Cambodia’s cooperation – as it chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2022 – to counter Chinese influence in the region. Last week, Washington imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia, citing concerns about human rights, corruption and China’s growing influence in the country. It said the move was aimed at restricting access to dual-use items and “defence articles and defence services” by Cambodia’s military and intelligence agencies. In response, Cambodian leader Hun Sen ordered the military to put all such weapons and military equipment into storage or “simply smash them”. US weapons were used by “losers of the war in Afghanistan”, the strongman said in a mocking Facebook post. US imposes arms embargo on Cambodia over Chinese military influence Just two days later, a US envoy had the temerity to urge Phnom Penh, as Asean chair, not to make any concessions to Myanmar ’s military junta. US State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet, on a brief visit to the Cambodian capital, said Washington expected “genuine progress” before engaging with the generals. But the US cannot in the same breath castigate Cambodia and expect it to cooperate. Washington has likely already missed the boat on forging closer economic and strategic ties with the Southeast Asian nation, given how much it has been driven into China’s embrace in recent years. Relentless US pressure over democracy and human rights issues is widely seen as an attempt to undermine the power of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. With China’s backing, there is little incentive for Phnom Penh to moderate its behaviour. And as time goes by, any leverage the US has over Cambodia will inevitably decline. The US is currently Cambodia’s largest export market, with US$3.4 billion worth of goods exported in the year to September, according to the World Bank – though whether Cambodia will continue to be eligible for a preferential trade agreement with the US known as the Generalised System of Preferences is unclear. By contrast, the Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement, signed last October, aims to boost annual trade between the two countries to US$10 billion by 2023. China also plans to increase direct imports of milled rice and other agricultural goods from Cambodia, and has offered a wide array of financial assistance, investments and infrastructural development ranging from expressways to airports. Can the US ever match China’s concrete economic offers to Asean? As Asean chair and one of the countries most likely to exert sway over Myanmar, especially during Hun Sen’s visit to Naypyidaw early next year, Washington would do well to hold its tongue about human rights and corruption in Cambodia. After all, these ills are also found in other US allies such as Vietnam and the Philippines . Some analysts have voiced their concerns that Phnom Penh will come under Beijing’s “coercive influence” during its Asean chairmanship, and Cambodia may well end up becoming a tool of China, especially when it comes to pivotal issues such as the ongoing talks over a code of conduct for the South China Sea . Any further haranguing by the US will do little to help Washington secure cooperation from Phnom Penh and may only serve to drive Cambodia into China’s total and permanent embrace.