This week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman embarked on a regional tour to three Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. She was the most senior diplomat to visit Southeast Asia under President Joe Biden’s administration, and the visit was intended to send the message that U.S. is seeking closer engagement with the region. Many have argued that the main motivation of this increased engagement is the challenge posed by a rising China.
While in Cambodia, during bilateral talks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Sherman singled out many issues, ranging from the country’s democratic backsliding and shrinking civic space to the Chinese military presence at the country’s Ream Naval Base and Cambodia’s preparations for chairing ASEAN in 2022.
In reference to the growing Chinese military presence in Cambodia, she urged Hun Sen to maintain an “independent and balanced foreign policy,” and to keep foreign influence at bay. On democracy and human rights, she called on the government to adhere to the relevant international and domestic legal instruments and drop all charges against members of opposition groups, activists, and journalists. On this front, Sherman also had meetings with representatives from media and civil society groups, as well as opposition leader Kem Sokha.
Sherman’s visit could serve as a substantial step toward resetting the bilateral relations between Cambodia and the United States. It could also offer some hope to the country’s civil society organizations, many of which have been urging more action from the U.S. amid the government’s long-running political crackdown, which has severely tightened the democratic space and restricted the activities of civil society and the independent media.
However, it remains to be seen whether Biden’s administration will continue to work on engaging with Cambodia in a more sustainable way. Previous U.S. administrations had made a series of commitments aimed at ensuring the Cambodian government’s adherence to democratic values and respect for human rights. But some have seen the engagement on these issues as mostly rhetorical, motivated by a move to counter the rising Chinese influence in the country rather than to genuinely build a stable and durable partnership on these issues with the Cambodian government, which could eventually pave the way for closer relations.
Any U.S. engagement with Cambodia should go beyond the issue of China’s rising influence in the country. Cambodia may not be strategically vital for the U.S., but, in terms of its ability to contribute to regional peace and stability, the small country has a lot of leverage to exercise. And this demonstrates that deep engagement with Cambodia is a must for the U.S. if it seeks to guarantee its regional presence and future interests.
The U.S. need not sacrifice human rights and democracy to save Cambodia from other foreign powers’ influence, as some experts suggest. It doesn’t have to act like China to be seen as friendly toward the Cambodian government.
So, what should the U.S. do next? First, it should recalibrate its approach so that the engagement can be more sustainable and durable. Washington needs to create a long-term strategy of engagement that creates more conducive conditions for confidence and trust-building. At the same time, it needs to constantly take a leadership role in spearheading the promotion of democratic and human rights principles.
If Washington wishes to claim that human rights and democracy remain at the center of its foreign policy, it necessitates that the U.S. can persistently and energetically work on promoting democratic governance, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms at various levels in Cambodia. It needs to continue to provide more support and capacity building to many stakeholders, ranging from youth groups to individual journalists to people in rural communities.
Such support will empower the independent media, civil society organizations, and the people at large to not only be able to carry out their duties and exercise their rights freely, but also to become more unified and resilient in an increasingly hostile environment for this type of work. Eventually, they will hopefully be able to counterbalance the power and influence of the state and hold the government accountable for its actions. To achieve that, the U.S. needs to engage in robust and dynamic cooperation with its allies, friends, and partners in the region, relationships that were in many cases damaged by the previous administration.
Another task for the U.S. is to assist the country in expanding the degree of economic freedom, through which it can stand on its own feet and withstand external influences. Currently, Cambodia was ranked 118th out of 178 countries in the 2021 economic freedom index. Arguably, lower levels of economic freedom, which imply weak governance and high levels of poverty, mean more susceptibility to foreign dependency.
On this question, I also want to draw attention to the recent speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen at the 26th International Conference on the Future of Asia. He emphasized clearly that without depending on China, there has been no one else Cambodia can rest upon when it comes to aid and investment. “Honestly speaking, if not China, who else can I rely on. Let’s speak the truth,” Hun Sen said, adding that Cambodia accepts help from all countries and has not closed its door to assistance, investment, or trade from the West.
The simple fact here is that like it or not, the U.S. cannot simply ask other countries, especially a small nation like Cambodia, not to trade or do business with economically powerful nations like China and take sides with it in its campaign to curb Chinese ambitions. But what it needs to do is to help Cambodia deal with any unsustainable and bad practices in business and trade activities that potentially demoralize democratic principles and put the lives of its citizens at stake.
Taking this into account, the U.S. should readjust its approach and stance in order to help Cambodia build its economic independence. Given that successfully improving economic freedom relies upon advancing the rule of law, regulatory efficiency, and open markets, the U.S. needs to continue assisting Cambodia toward these ends. Meanwhile, encouraging more investment and trade with Cambodia must also be one of the prime focuses for U.S. policymakers.
Moreover, some Cambodian scholars have suggested that the U.S. consider using the expansion of trade the trade preferences that Cambodia enjoys under the Generalized System of Preferences in order to renew the two nations’ strained ties. Doing so could be of great help in aiding Cambodia’s path toward economic freedom. Through active economic and public diplomacy, all of this can be achieved even if it takes time.
All in all, the U.S. engagement with Cambodia must be based much more than just on the “China factor”; it needs to build a realistic and practical partnership based on the integrity and the spirit as partnership and friendship. The U.S. needs to engage more, not less, in a region that has recently seen a rise in authoritarianism.
The road to this end is likely to be long and bumpy, but the destination is reachable. And the good news is that U.S. has deep soft power reserves in Cambodia, and people-to-people ties remain strong. I remain optimistic that Cambodia will become more economically self-reliant and be able to restore and maintain a system of democratic governance that can withstand external influences. Then there will come a time when it can fully regain its neutrality and independence.