Cambodia-US ties are at all-time low. The people of both countries must be empowered to restore trust and normalize their relationship. Politicians from both countries are stuck in their old school. We need to find innovative approaches to save our bilateral partnership.
Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act of 2018 or CARI Act proposed by the US Senate in February sounds like a Khmer word for “curry”, which is one of Cambodia’s favorite party food. But this is no party for Cambodia-US ties just like the Tea Party movement in the US that has nothing to do with any celebration.
This “CARI-curry” is in fact symbolic of the all-time low in Cambodia-US ties. The current Cambodian domestic political situation and the growing US-China geopolitical rivalry further exacerbates the bilateral relationship.
The critical question now is how to mend Cambodia-US ties?
In the current situation, both countries need to have “out-of-the-box” approaches to earn more space and enduring trust before a traditional approach can return to normal functioning.
That out-of-the-box here means out-of-the-government and/or the Congress approaches.
De-demonize and depoliticize each other are the keys for both countries to regain mutual trust. But when governments are involved, it is unavoidable for bilateral issues to be not politicized. An out-of-the-box approach here should refer to, among others, the promotion of people-to-people ties and sister-city linkages. However, the NGOs funded by the US government that are hostile to the Cambodian government cannot be a bridge of trust.
Practical examples are abundant. After all, how could a communist China build a magnitude of relations with the US? Exchanges between the Science Academy of China and the US were considered as one of the factors in stimulating relations well before their reopening of relations in 1972.
China and Vietnam have been able to build good relations with the US through many channels beyond government. They both understand the characteristics of US society. The magic word and the beauty of the US system is that “in America, the government is not everything.”
Therefore, it is prejudicial to have a view that the whole America is against Cambodia and that the US wants a regime change in Cambodia. The same goes true for the diaspora communities. While there are those hardliners who stick to regime change, there are other accomplished Cambodians in the diaspora who want to actively engage and leave their footprints on Cambodia’s development path.
To overcome such a prejudice, there are two tasks of “diversification” that Cambodia should undertake. One is to diversify actors. It needs to mobilise more human resources beyond the government to create human bonds that support the durability of state relations.
Another task is to diversify areas of cooperation. Such task should seek to mitigate areas of disagreement and expand areas of cooperation for mutual benefits, especially those that are non-political and neutral in nature.
If compared to China, the US does not have hard infrastructure to offer but its strength lies in soft power – knowledge transfer, capacity building especially in areas such as entrepreneurship, agricultural commercialisation and marketing know-hows, management of public health, and other areas related to technology and science. These are potential areas that both countries can work on to further cement ties.
Political distrust is not going to submerge anytime soon. “It takes two to tango” or in Khmer, we say, “one can’t clap with single hand.” To be able to tango together, one possible option is to try to choose different dance floors, play different songs or choose different dancers.
Doung Bosba, a Cambodia analyst based in Phnom Penh