Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Politics | Southeast Asia

Beyond the Trump-Hun Sen Letters, Where Will a US-Cambodia Thaw End Up?

Amid the spotlight on the correspondence by the two leaders looms the bigger question of what a recalibrated relationship may look like and how it will evolve in the future.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Beyond the Trump-Hun Sen Letters, Where Will a US-Cambodia Thaw End Up?
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

Over the past week, revelations of a recent letter exchange between U.S. President Donald Trump and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has reignited interest in the evolving state of U.S.-Cambodia relations. While the focus thus far has been on the specifics of the letter exchange itself, the bigger question continues to be what the outlines for a previously expected thawing of a U.S.-Cambodia relationship may look like in the coming months.

As I have noted before in these pages, U.S.-Cambodia relations have been through their share of ups and downs over the past few decades since diplomatic relations were last reestablished in 1993 following previous years of Khmer Rouge rule, occupation, and civil war. U.S.-Cambodia relations under Hun Sen, who has presided over this entire post-1993 period thus far, have repeatedly seen periods of suspension or downgrading in line with various factors including the state of democracy and human rights in the country, Cambodia’s balance of its foreign alignments, and different administrations in the United States.

While friction had been rising in U.S.-Cambodia relations in previous years as well, the latest downturn in began to be clearly visible publicly in 2017. Ahead of an impending general election in 2018, Hun Sen not only mounted a new crackdown on the opposition, but his government also cut off several engagements with the United States, including military exercises, and also deepened its dependence on China to an unprecedented degree with manifestations that have continued to be seen into 2019, including with the establishment of a military facility in the country. With all this in play, it had been difficult U.S. policymakers not to downgrade aspects of the bilateral relationship, as it had been for some others as well including the European Union.

But even during this tense period in ties, the key question looking ahead had been on what the terms for a thawing relationship might be in the future, especially given the severity of steps Hun Sen had initially taken and the difficulty of reversing some of them entirely. And with Hun Sen seeking to rebalance his country’s foreign relationships after his election win last year and the United States also looking to boost ties with Southeast Asian states like Cambodia amid rising concerns about China under the Trump administration, we have seen this process of thawing gradually playing out over the past few months, at times in public but mostly behind the scenes.

Seen from this perspective, the letters exchange that we have seen publicly released over the past week attests to the expected and ongoing process of thawing U.S.-Cambodia relations. Trump’s letter to Hun Sen, dated November 1, noted that the United States does not seek regime change but does want Hun Sen to “put Cambodia back on the path of democratic governance,” while Hun Sen’s reply to Trump released November 26 noted that the two countries “should not become hostage of a few dark chapters of our own history” and proposed the creation of a working group to discuss ways to improve ties.

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But while the letters make clear that this process is at play, the key question is what the outlines of a thawed U.S.-Cambodia relationship might be. While not all of Hun Sen’s actions at home and abroad may be reversible, Washington will at least need to see reassurances from the Cambodian government on a number of fronts including the treatment of the opposition and democracy and human rights if any meaningful thaw is to occur. Cambodia will also be looking to see what lower-hanging fruit might be possible in terms of slowly building ties back up as Hun Sen and the CPP further consolidate their position at home and also improve relations with other entities including the EU.

Beyond the immediate thaw at play, however, it will be important to keep in mind that there are other factors that will play into how the U.S.-Cambodia relationship plays out. Domestically, beyond the focus on Hun Sen and the CPP, succession dynamics and the evolution of the Cambodian opposition and the sentiment of the Cambodian people will be key to watch. Internationally, how Phnom Penh manages its mix of foreign alignments more broadly is the key question, in part because other neighboring Southeast Asian states like Vietnam or other regional powers like Japan continue to retain significant influence in Cambodia and will factor into how the country determines what it needs from the West in general and the united States in particular.

In that sense, the thawing we have seen in U.S.-Cambodia relations of late and the letter exchange between Trump and Hun Sen is another important reminder that irrespective of the highs and lows of a relationship at a particular time, evolving dynamics can lead to recalibration far sooner than might be expected. That is worth keeping in mind as we see more developments play out in the coming weeks and months.