How to fix Cambodia-US ties

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US Ambassador to Cambodia William A Heidt (left) and Dr Say Samal, Cambodia’s Minister of Environment, at a function in 2016. US-Cambodia ties are now at an all-time low. KT/Mai Vireak

Never before have ties between the US and Cambodia been so low, since 1997. The bilateral relationship now is close to hitting rock-bottom level with a lack of mutual trust and understanding between both countries.

The big question, now, is how do both countries mend ties to restore what has been lost in such a short period of time.

Without doubt, a stable relationship between Cambodia and the US benefits people of both countries, contributes to the enhancement of US-Asean strategic partnership and Washington’s regional initiatives such as the Lower Mekong Initiative and the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Both sides need to respect the principles of international relations, which are respect of mutual interests, non-interference, and equal sovereignty. Also, they must adjust their perceptions and positions in the midst of dynamic geopolitical realities. Direct, frank and open dialogues can help promote mutual understanding and build trust.

There are two channels where Cambodia can proactively and comprehensively engage the US. The first is through a Track I diplomacy – namely through official channels. The second is via a Track II diplomacy – using think-tanks and academics. Due to the urgency of the situation, in the face of further deteriorating ties, diplomats, members of parliament and congressmen from both sides should establish a channel of communication and consultation to exchange views on how to expand areas of cooperation and narrow down differences.

A Track II dialogue should be established to initiate talks that would cover domestic politics in both countries and formulate a foreign policy strategy in a fluid global political environment. The dialogue should also explore convergent and divergent national interests, and suggest policy recommendations.

There is a strong belief among Cambodian policy makers that the US has been interfering in Cambodia’s domestic affairs by offering support to the opposition party and encouraging some local and international civil society groups and media to frame negative perceptions of Cambodia – hence tarnishing the country’s international image.

US diplomats to Cambodia do not understand the complexity of Cambodian politics and tend to have biased views of the country. The lack of diplomatic capacity and professionalism is one of the main causes for the deterioration of Cambodia-US relations.

Sadly, a narrow and parochial perception still persists – one that is based on sheer ignorance. US policy makers and strategic analysts tend to perceive that Cambodia, under the leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party, is a vassal or client state of China. They also blatantly put forward, without any qualms, that democracy in Cambodia has been undermined by the CPP. Some have even called Prime Minister Hun Sen a dictator.

Such views and opinions build brick walls and prevent meaningful efforts of both countries to restore a broken relationship. The US needs to convince Cambodia why Washington is not interfering in Cambodia’s domestic politics. Meanwhile Cambodia needs to convince the US that it is not a vassal state of China and democracy is on the right track.

In addition to the promotion of mutual understanding and trust, both countries must understand each other’s core national interests and foreign policy objectives and strategies. It is crystal clear that Cambodia’s core national interests are centred on economic development and poverty reduction. In order to achieve that, Cambodia needs to maintain peace and stability in the country and the region. It also needs to stick with its reform agenda, open up and diversify its economy, and develop and cultivate strategic economic partners.

The US’s core national interests are intertwined with security and economic interests. Democracy and human rights have been one of the main foreign policy objectives of the US. However the current Trump administration does not have much appetite in promoting liberal values.

One of the foreign policy challenges for Cambodia as well as other countries in Southeast Asia is the lack of clarity and commitment of the US in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region at large. A weak and unpredictable US leadership has forced Southeast Asian countries to tilt towards China, for both economic and security interests.

Cambodia-US relations can be salvaged as long as Washington demonstrates its sincerity, political will and commitment, and leadership in maintaining regional peace and development. The US must also show support for Cambodia’s nation-building efforts.

An effective approach towards Cambodia will only work if the US demonstrates deeper understanding of the history, socio-cultural system, politico-economic conditions, and the complexity of power politics and transition in the Kingdom. Cambodia is still at the early stages of nation building and its fledgling democracy is vulnerable to abrupt power changes and transitions. Incremental political reform is required in order to prevent potential relapses into violent conflicts.

Cambodian society still remains divided due to different political ideologies and orientation, and rising socio-economic inequality is an emerging threat to sustainable peace and development.

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