ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cambodia Hires Beltway Lobby Group to Boost Ailing International Reputation

The hire is a clear recognition by Cambodia’s government that it needs to repair its ties to the U.S. But will it work?

Cambodia Hires Beltway Lobby Group to Boost Ailing International Reputation
Credit: Depositphotos

Last week, Radio Free Asia reported that Cambodia’s government had hired a Washington-based lobbying firm to arrest the government’s deteriorating reputation in the United States.

According to the report from the U.S.-funded broadcaster, the government signed a contract with the firm Qorvis Communications that will see it paid $69,300 a month to “provide strategic communications and media relations services in support of increasing public awareness along with travel and tourism for the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

The contract was signed by Chum Sounry, Cambodia’s Ambassador to the U.S., on September 15, the report stated, citing a filing that records the registration of agents who represent foreign governments in Washington.

The news came after the Cambodian government spent $1.2 million on lobbying efforts in 2019, including a $720,000 retainer for the high-profile Washington, D.C. firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and $500,000 for PacRim Bridges, an obscure firm headed by Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen.

This hiring spree is a clear move by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to engage in much-needed “image management” in Washington. Never positive at the best of times, the Cambodian government’s reputation in the U.S. has plummeted over the past five years, as it has banned the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), exiled one of its leaders, and arrested another on charges of plotting the overthrow of the government in cahoots with the U.S.

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This crackdown, which has been paralleled by an all-out assault on Cambodian civil society and the independent press, left the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) free to run virtually unopposed at the 2018 election, in which it handily won all 125 seats in the National Assembly.

Perhaps more salient for policymakers in Washington has been the government’s increasing closeness with and reliance on China, which has placed it squarely in the crosshairs of a U.S. security establishment that views “great power competition” with China as the nation’s new strategic raison d’etre. Cambodia thus stands at the crossroads of the converging hard power and ideological currents of the dawning age of Sino-American competition, a polarizing dynamic that is steadily worsening its ties to the U.S., while steadily increasing its unhealthy reliance on China.

Since the 1990s, when Cambodia hosted a multinational United Nations peacekeeping mission, Cambodian opposition figures, including the polished former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, have been canny at lobbying the U.S. Congress and other Western governments, efforts that have done a lot to shape perceptions of Cambodia – particularly of the need for foreign governments to intervene more forcefully in response to Hun Sen’s periodic crackdowns.

In recent years, they have had some success. Since the 2018 election, the U.S. government has imposed sanctions on close allies of Hun Sen and his family, while the European Union partially suspended the trade preferences Cambodia enjoys under its Everything But Arms scheme.

While opposition politicians have long-standing relationships on Capitol Hill, the Cambodian government has been either incompetent at this game or indifferent to how it is viewed abroad. The hire of Qorvis Communications, along with the lobbying contracts signed in 2019, reflect the government’s recognition that it needs to improve relations with the U.S. in order to rebalance its foreign policy.

Whether this latest hire makes much difference, however, remains to be seen. American perceptions of Hun Sen’s Cambodia as both an authoritarian state and a lackey of Beijing are going to be hard to shift, absent significant political reforms or a sharp distancing of Cambodia from China – both of which will be hard to square with the CPP’s concern about its domestic political position.

Moreover, the broader strategic alignments are also pulling against the Cambodian government’s efforts to improve its image and bring more balance to its foreign relations.

In order to build a regional coalition to counter China’s growing power, the U.S. government has been forced to make pragmatic accommodations with a range of non-democratic or illiberal governments, from communist-run Vietnam to Narendra Modi’s India, all the while claiming that its competition with China is a struggle of free states against authoritarian ones.

In order to square this circle, it will become all the more important for there to be a few nations toward which Washington can claim to take stands on principle. Given its resurgent authoritarianism, its closeness to China, and its relatively small strategic and economic importance to the U.S., Cambodia seems set to fulfill this role for the foreseeable future.