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Can Biden’s Special ASEAN Summit Be a Salve for Strained US-Cambodia Ties?

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Can Biden’s Special ASEAN Summit Be a Salve for Strained US-Cambodia Ties?

The past few years have seen relations between Phnom Penh and Washington reach decades-long lows.

Can Biden’s Special ASEAN Summit Be a Salve for Strained US-Cambodia Ties?
Credit: Depositphotos

On February 7, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen revealed that he had received a letter from U.S. President Joe Biden inviting him, as the current chair of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the bloc’s other leaders to a special summit in Washington, scheduled to be held sometime in the coming months.

In the letter, dated January 14, Biden highlighted the importance of the engagement of the U.S. with the region as well as Washington’s support for ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN-led regional architecture, demonstrating the need for both sides to work hand in hand to further bolster it.

It remains unclear when exactly the summit will be held, but it is momentous for the U.S. and ASEAN leaders to meet face to face after several years of virtual communication due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are of course many issues waiting for both sides to discuss, ranging from recovery from the pandemic to regional matters like the Myanmar crisis, backtracking democracy, and rising Chinese influence. Any opportunity for leaders to meet physically will offer a boost to the ongoing engagement between the U.S. and Southeast Asia and help the two sides better address regional and global challenges.

As it turns out, Cambodia has assumed the role of the ASEAN chair following several years in which Phnom Penh’s relations with Washington have deteriorated. In December, the Biden administration imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia, citing human rights concerns as well as the increasing Chinese military influence in the country.

Following the announcement of the upcoming U.S.-ASEAN summit, some Cambodian pundits on social media began to ask whether the strained ties between the two nations might be eased by the holding of a special summit while Cambodia is in charge of ASEAN. It is the right time to pose such a question, but unfortunately, it is unlikely that the future summit will lead to any substantial improvement in U.S.-Cambodia relations.

There are three reasons why this is so. First of all, the invitation had been sent out to the head of the Cambodian government in its capacity as the current chairman of the regional grouping. It is more about advancing engagement between the U.S. and ASEAN than it is about U.S.-Cambodia relations as such, and it is Cambodia’s role and responsibility to navigate and ensure that the partnership between the region and its key external partners like the U.S. advances further this year.

The second reason is that this is not the first special U.S.-ASEAN summit. In 2016, then President Barack Obama hosted the first special summit in which all ASEAN leaders were invited to a meeting in Rancho Mirage, California, as part of his “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia strategy.

At the time, the decision to invite leaders of authoritarian countries with poor human rights records drew criticism and condemnation from rights groups. The meeting was accompanied by a series of protests in the U.S. against several of the invited leaders, including Hun Sen, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and the leaders of one-party Vietnam and Laos.

And of course, the upcoming summit will likely see more or less the same pressure for the Biden administration to maintain pressure on ASEAN leaders over human rights issues and backsliding democracy during the upcoming summit. Having just hosted the so-called Summit for Democracy in early December, Biden may find it hard to circumvent calls from rights groups to raise these issues with the leaders of ASEAN.

This is unlikely to go down well in Phnom Penh. In a recent speech, Hun Sen said that nobody has the right to lecture him on questions of democracy and human rights, a view that he has expressed many times in the past. This suggests that any bid by the U.S. administration to advance talks on human rights and democracy in Cambodia will not contribute to easing the strained diplomatic ties.

Third, assuming that both sides intend to make use of the summit to seek ways to address challenges in their bilateral relations, both need to make genuine efforts to set aside their differences and reason out the existing trust deficits. The strains in relations between Cambodia and the U.S. have been triggered by more than just democratic and human rights factors; also important is the related factor of the country’s strong political and military ties with China in a context of fierce geopolitical competition.

Building back relations will only be possible when the two countries prioritize the building of  mutual trust. Washington needs to recognize that relations with Cambodia should not be determined by the China factor alone. If this kind of perception persists in Washington, there is little hope that the partnership will improve in the near future.

In recent years, U.S.-Cambodia relations have reached a decades-long low, and 2022 and 2023 won’t be an easy time for the restoration of stable relations, given the controversy that will no doubt surround the coming election season in Cambodia. That said, the U.S. has been trying to walk a fine line and ensure that it does not shut all doors when it comes to dealing with Cambodia, despite the worsening political relations.

Speaking to journalists in Phnom Penh in early December, State Department Counselor Derek Chollet stressed that it is important that Cambodia and the U.S. remain engaged and attentive to seeking common areas of cooperation that can be of mutual benefit, despite the two governments’ differences. In the meantime, he acknowledged that the close relationship between Cambodia and the U.S. is more than just the relationship between governments.

It is undeniable that U.S. soft power in Cambodia remains formidable, and people-to-people linkages continue to be robust. As it has been so arduous to build political trust with the Cambodian government, the US administration has been trying to expand its soft power through cultural diplomacy in recent years and remains active in supporting people on the ground through different programs, including in the areas of education and cultural conservation.

Among the most prominent examples in this regard is the U.S. government provision of an additional $87,000 in a grant through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation late last year for the further preservation of the northern staircase of the eleventh-century temple of Preah Vihear, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy also promised that the U.S. will continue to be an important partner in efforts to preserve Cambodia’s ancient wonders.

Cultural diplomacy can play an important role in maintaining channels of engagement and communication when political relations are strained. The U.S. could make effective use of it over time in order to cultivate much-needed confidence, understanding, and mutual trust. At the same time, Cambodia, which also benefits greatly from this kind of engagement, will need to think carefully before it makes any decision that might jeopardize or complicate the efforts to get existing ties back on track.