Cambodia-US bilateral relations should be viewed beyond the paradigm of a superpower’s geopolitical rivalry. It is the principle of Cambodia’s foreign policy that seeks to make friends with all whilst being an enemy to no one.
As a small state, without prejudice to the protection of sovereign independence and territorial integrity, Cambodia sees no interest in creating animosity against any powers or relying heavily on any single source of security or market access. In other words, Cambodia is implementing a hedging and diversification strategy.
Recently, the gradual and quiet increase of practical cooperation between Cambodia and the US provides strong hope for positive amelioration of bilateral ties. Those fields include, inter alia, humanitarian cooperation, cultural preservation, environmental protection, law enforcement and military cooperation. Functional cooperation is critical to restoring political and strategic trust.
Beyond the tit for tat, efforts from both sides to manage the relationship in difficult times should be recognized. It is normal for countries to have differences, but these should overshadow the entirety of the bilateral relationship. The win-win scenario for both sides is to narrow down the differences, while expanding the areas of functional cooperation. Pragmatism should matter much more than political ideology.
The early sign of warming ties arose from the resumption of cooperation in October 2018 on finding the remains of Prisoners Of War/Missing in Action (POWs/MIA) on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Ann Mills-Griffiths, Chairman of the board and CEO of the National League of POW/MIA Families acknowledged Cambodia’s act of goodwill and considered the latter as a country of “Golden Standard of cooperation”.
The US has offered remarkable assistance for cultural preservation via the Preah Vihear Authority. Support for demining activities was not disrupted and educational exchanges remain vibrant. For Cambodian students, pursuing their higher education in the US is their dream as the US remains the leading country in terms of the quality of education and innovation.
In terms of military cooperation, in March 2019 Cambodia and the US signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement with the aim of strengthening ties in humanitarian affairs, education and military training.
In April 2019, Army commander Lieutenant General Hun Manet also visited the US on the invitation of US Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, commander of the Special Operations Command Pacific, to attend a Pacific Area Special Operation Conference. The visit marked a significant milestone in normalizing the troubled bilateral ties.
In the same month, National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun also led a delegation to the US to sign the first memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to promote cooperation in law enforcement against transnational crimes.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) also supports the Greening Prey Lang project to conserve biodiversity and the ecological system of the forest, which is one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining lowland evergreen woodlands. Prey Lang was designated a protected wildlife sanctuary in May 2016.
Among various endeavours, Greening Prey Lang project deserves special attention in terms of how both countries can cooperate on the supposedly sensitive issues. It is a hard truth that deforestation remains a key issue for Cambodia.
The core moral of the story is that instead of criticizing and pondering on weaknesses that stemmed from limited institutional capacity, which is commonplace for any developing nation, the US is working together with and giving a helping hand to the Cambodian government.
The “name and shame” tactic does not work for Asian mentality. Such approach often provokes a vicious cycle of defensive retaliation that discourages intention to cooperate. Attacking each other’s weak points is not constructive and is the major obstacle for the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation.
Without discrediting the US’s support to advocacy activities, it would be mutually beneficial if the US could balance between supporting the means of advocacy and the means of delivery of state actors. The approach of the Greening Prey Lang project should be replicated in other areas of practical cooperation.
It is imperative that both countries need to mitigate the differences and widen understandings by capitalizing the spill-over effect from increased practical cooperation across various sectors. Inter-personal friendship and trust is also important. Hence frank and open dialogue between the leaders of the two countries need to be encouraged. Both countries should put the people’s interests first. In the eyes of many Cambodians, the US remains one of the most trustworthy friends.
Sim Vireak is strategic advisor to Asian Vision Institute (AVI) based in Phnom Penh.