April 04, 2017

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) Cambodia began construction Tuesday of a new $157 million football stadium funded by China, the Southeast Asian country's most important ally.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the groundbreaking ceremony that China's support for the stadium, to be used for hosting the Southeast Asian Games in 2023, is evidence of the two countries' close cooperation.

Beijing has provided millions of dollars in aid and investment for Cambodia over the past decade, and in return has secured its political support in international forums. It has increasingly used ''soft power'' diplomacy and strategic investments to spread its influence, even as it aggressively pursues its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The new stadium is 10 kilometers (six miles) north of Phnom Penh and will have a capacity of 60,000, second only to a Phnom Penh stadium constructed in 1964 to hold 70,000 spectators.

The greater stadium area, covering 16 hectares (40 acres), will be used for soccer, rugby and athletics, and is part of a sports complex encompassing 85 hectares (210 acres).

As Cambodia's relations with China have warmed, its bonds with the United States have loosened. Until recently it was largely reliant on foreign aid from the West to support its economy, and attempted to placate Washington and other critics of its human rights record with minimum reforms. The influx of Chinese aid - unattached to expressions of concern about rights issues - has inclined Hun Sen to move closer to Beijing.

The perception of China projecting greater power in Southeast Asia while the United States seems indecisive has caused several countries to reevaluate their relations with Washington.

The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia announced on Monday that the U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion - also known as the Seabees - is leaving Cambodia after a nine-year humanitarian assistance mission.

''Since 2008, the Seabees have carried out more than $5 million in community service projects benefiting tens of thousands of Cambodians. The Seabees built hospital and school improvements in 11 provinces, working hand-in-hand with counterparts from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and local communities,'' it said in a statement. ''Last week, the Royal Government of Cambodia notified the Embassy of its decision to postpone indefinitely the Seabees program.''

It said the decision canceled 20 planned projects, including maternity wards and school bathrooms, in several locations around Cambodia.

In January, Cambodia announced it was canceling its annual Angkor Sentinel military exercise with the United States.

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