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Cambodia-US relations under future Biden administration questioned

Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Share:
Prime Minister Hun Sen and President Donald Trump speak on the sidelines of the 2017 Asean Summit in Manila. Supplied

Despite the government’s commitment to taking the bilateral relationship between Cambodia and the United States President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to a “greater height”, academics remain skeptical over both countries’ patience and compromise.

Prime Minister Hun Sen last week broke his silence after he sent a letter to Biden, congratulating him for winning the “historic election” as the 46th President of the US. He said that the government is “fully committed” to working with the new US administration to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

Cambodia-US relations began to deteriorate in the lead up to the last national election as the former opposition CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017 and its leader Kem Sokha was arrested and accused of colluding with the US to overthrow the government.

The US government then imposed visa restrictions on senior Cambodian government officials accused of violating human rights and undermining democracy in the Kingdom.

The spokesman for the US Embassy said via an email yesterday that it is “too early” to comment on the incoming US administration.

Kin Phea, director-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said yesterday that overall he does not expect any further improvement in the relationship between the two countries.

“Importantly, the US should refrain from interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs, especially on human rights issues, to pave the way for better relations between the two countries,” Phea said. The Cambodia-US relationship under the new Biden administration will not change much in comparison to the current Donald Trump administration.

“As I have stated, no matter which party the US government comes from, the US position on Cambodia has not changed much,” he said. “If they want to improve relations between the two countries, they need to understand each other and especially have a mutual respect for sovereignty and independence.”

“Of course, for the US, Cambodia is not its main strategic interest. Firstly, the US has been interested in Cambodia since it gained close ties with China, and at the same time, China has made great strides to compete with the US,” Phea said. He added that Cambodia’s membership in Asean also attracts US attention, as no decision can be finalised without the Kingdom’s input.

However, Paul Chambers, a lecturer and special advisor for international affairs at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said yesterday that the Biden administration will likely be looking toward improving US-Cambodia relations.

“Nevertheless, especially as a centrist Democrat, Biden will be seeking to walk a tricky tightrope, maximising within US foreign policy and US geopolitical interests while also maximising normative values,” he said.

“I am optimistic that if both countries are patient and willing to compromise, that they can achieve a better relationship under Biden,” he added. “Without patience and compromise from both countries, then relations may not improve.”

In his letter to Biden, Mr Hun Sen said that he believes the US will thrive and contribute to greater stability and prosperity of the world under Biden’s presidency.

“Please rest assured that my government is fully committed to working with your administration to boost our bilateral relations to a greater height,” he said. “On this auspicious moment, I wish you, Mr President-elect, and your administration, all the best of success in the fulfilment of your historic duty at the helm of the American Nation.”

Mr Hun Sen added that the people and the Cambodian government have always attached “great importance to strengthening and deepening the long-standing bond of friendship” between the two countries.

The Kingdom and the US this year mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment between the two nations in 1950.

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