Cambodia and the US: Ties to be Mended, Trust to be Restored

The first direct official diplomatic relations between Cambodia and the US were established in July 1950. The diplomatic relations between the two countries have lasted for more than 70 years. However, these relations seem not to be matured enough for their age. These relations have been complicated and unpredictable since before and after Cambodia gained independence.

Over the past 70 years, relations between Cambodia and the US have been mixed, unstable and gone through ups and downs, and the two countries had twice severed diplomatic ties. However, the ties have been broadened and deepened in several fields over the last decade. The arrival of Obama administration reinvigorated US policy of re-engagement in Southeast Asia as well as Asia as a whole. The US had deepened its partnership with ASEAN members, including Cambodia.

The US’ relationship with Cambodia was shaped and framed based on the Pivot to Asia Strategy, which was dynamic and comprehensive.  The strategy covered a wide range of activities including the strengthening of bilateral security alliances, forging a broad-based military presence, engaging regional multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment, advancing democracy and human rights. This was not only to achieve the US interests and values but also to counterbalance China’s influence in Southeast Asia.

Later, the US under Donald Trump’s administration seemed not to value ASEAN, and US relations with some ASEAN countries did not seem to be very healthy. The US’ relationship with Cambodia seems to be strained. However, at the end of his term in 2019, US President Donald Trump sent two letters to Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, which was considered a rare diplomatic gesture.

The first letter was an invitation extended to Samdech Techo Hun Sen to attend the special US–ASEAN Summit in 2020 and the second letter emphasized the significance of bilateral ties by affirming that the US wants to further enhance bilateral ties based on mutual respect. In his second letter, Donald Trump emphasized that the US​ respects the sovereign will of the Cambodian people and doesn’t seek regime change.  He also called on the foreign policy teams of the two countries to commence discussions to restore ties between the two countries.

In response, Prime Minister Hun Sen hailed the Donald Trump’s Summit initiative, noting that it would enhance ASEAN-US relations. Samdech Techo Hun Sen’s move was clear and supported the ASEAN-US Strategic Partnership to continue to grow and benefit each other.

Prime Minister Hun Sen also supported the initiative to establish a working group to restore “trust” between the two countries. Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed that the two countries’ foreign policy teams should work together to restore trust and confidence and rebuild the friendship between the two countries and peoples.

However, it is still skeptical whether or not the two country can mend ties to restore what has been lost in the past in such a short period of time. The question is what are the strategic interest seen by the two countries in their bilateral relations?

Despite its small size, small number of population and the weak economy, its geographical location and regional role, Cambodia is strategically important to the US.

The US interests in Cambodia include promoting development, trade and investment, regional security, civil society, democracy, and human rights, especially the geopolitical interests of which the US is in fierce competition with China. The US greater engagement with Cambodia not only to achieve US interests and values but also to counterbalance China’s influence in Southeast Asia.

For Cambodia, its core national interests in its bilateral relations with the US are centred on economic development and poverty reduction through US assistance, bilateral trade, investment, and cooperation for regional peace, security and stability. Cambodia has always placed great importance and priority to peace and stability in the country and the region. Therefore, the US should clearly understand Cambodia’s strategic interests in its relations with the Kingdom.

From the overall view, Cambodia and the US seem to have shared interrelated strategic interests in their bilateral relations, so why have these relations been strained and not matured enough for their age? What challenges hinder these relations to grow?

In terms of foreign policy, the two countries have different objectives. During the 20th century, particularly during the Cold War, the US’ foreign policy was mainly crafted to contain the growth of communism with anything else being secondary, the same was applied in Southeast Asia. The US hadn’t had a clear foreign policy toward Southeast Asia in general and Cambodia in particular.

Cambodia’s foreign policy ultimate goal was to survive as a nation and a sovereign state by any means possible. Cambodia has not discriminated between liberal and communist worlds. The goal of Cambodia’s foreign policy is to maintain peace, stability, friendship, prosperity, and development and regain the national prestige lost in the past.

Cambodia’s comprehensive strategic partnership with China is likely seen to remain a shadow over the growing relationship between Cambodia and the US making Cambodia’s relationship with the US is complicated and unpredictable. Against this backdrop, the US perhaps would not take Cambodia as a strategic partner.

In its view, the US considers Cambodia a woman married to China. This view makes the relationship between the two countries seem to be locked in China’s shadow. Pragmatically, Cambodia has always adhered to the multi-vector foreign policy of colorful flowers without discriminating between liberal or communist worlds.

Cambodia’s domestic political issues seem to be being used by the US in exchange for its relationship with Cambodia. Thus, it appears that the US has interfered in Cambodia’s internal affairs by providing support to the opposition and encouraging local and international civil society groups, as well as some media outlets, to frame a “negative” perception of Cambodia which tarnishes the Kingdom’s image on the international stage.

At the same time, deep differences over issues of democracy and human rights, and lack of political trust and confidence have become major challenges straining relations between the two countries.

The attitude of the US diplomats in Cambodia in the past had also harmed relations between the two countries, as they seemed to have little understanding or indifference to Asian values, Cambodian culture and civilization, especially the turning points in Cambodian history. However, with the arrival of the current US Ambassador Patrick Murphy, a veteran diplomat with professionalism, knowledge of Asian and Cambodian society and culture, it noted that relations between the two countries have stabilized and improved.

Even though the challenges have been identified and felt by both countries but the question on how the two countries mend their ties and restore their trust is still the most​ frequently-asked question to be answered.

Just an overall view, to mend this unhealthy relationship and to narrow trust and confidence gap, first and foremost, the two countries should strictly adhere to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs as enshrined in the UN Charter and mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Frank and frequent bilateral dialogues are crucial to building trust and cultivating the relationship and friendship between the two countries. At the same time, both sides should adjust their position and open their mind and heart to embrace the differences and work together towards the future.

The exchanges of high-level visits should be made regularly and frequently to contribute in enhancement of mutual understanding through correct mutual perception for the strengthening and developing of friendship and cooperation between the two countries, and to address regional and global issues of common interests. It is noted that the exchanges of high-level visits between Cambodia and the US have been very rare leaving mutual trust in big gap.

In promotion of mutual understanding and trust, the two countries should understand each other’s core national interests and foreign policy objectives and strategies, as well as respect mutual interests and understand each other’s concerns.

An effective way to strengthen its relationship with Cambodia, the US should demonstrate deeper understanding of the history, socio-cultural system, political and economic conditions, and the complexity of power politics and transition in the country.

The US should further intensify its development cooperation with Cambodia through more positive rather than negative reinforcements. In the context of geopolitical competition, the use of negative reinforcements could be counterproductive. At the same time, the US should consider encouraging its investors to invest in Cambodia as just like China.

It is the time for the US and Cambodia, in China’s shadow, to reset ties. Cambodia must continue to adhere to the fundamental principles of its foreign policy, as enshrined in Article 53 of the 1993 Constitution, which states that “The Kingdom of Cambodia adopts a policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. The Kingdom of Cambodia follows a policy of peaceful co-existence with its neighbors and with all other countries throughout the world.”

However, Cambodia should adopt a smart multi-vector foreign policy with all countries without discriminating between liberal or communist worlds in order to gain the benefits for the nation and people just the same way to great powers have done for their own interests. Interests have no communist or liberal color or smell.

Both China and the US have played important roles in promoting Cambodia’s development.  Therefore, Cambodia should to find a way to balance relations between the two superpowers to maximize its political, economic and diplomatic returns, and should not give prominence to one particular major power over another.

Overall, Cambodia and the US still have many opportunities and big space to mend their ties and narrow trust gap between them. We hope that the lessons of the 70 years of their bilateral relations would be enough for them to use in cultivating more stable, comprehensive, deeper and stronger bilateral relations between the two countries for the next 70 years and beyond.

Kin Phea is Director-General of International Relations Institute of Cambodia, Royal Academy of Cambodia.

The views expressed in this article are solely personal views of the author, they DO NOT reflect the views of the International Relations Institute of Cambodia or the Royal Academy of Cambodia.

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