A new chapter for Cambodia-US relations?

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The appointment of a veteran diplomat Patrick Murphy, who has broad and deep knowledge of Southeast Asia and well experienced in dealing with regional stakeholders, presents an opportunity to open a new chapter for the troubled bilateral relationship between the US and Cambodia.

Mr. Patrick Murphy has more than two decades of diplomatic experience. Previously, he has served as Acting Special Representative & Policy Coordinator for Burma (2012-2013), Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’affaires in Bangkok from 2013 and 2016, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2016 to 2018.

Cambodia-US relationship has hit the lowest point since 1994 when the US re-opened its diplomatic mission in Phnom Penh. The causes of this significant backtrack are due to deep differences over the issues of democracy and human rights, lack of political trust, the US’s meddling into Cambodia’s domestic politics, and the rising influence of China.

His task to restore political trust and mend ties with Cambodia would be very challenging but also rewarding. His name and legacy would be registered with glory if he could improve the bilateral ties between the two countries.

The appointment is a timely relevant. The opportunities could emerge from crisis if there is smart and right leadership. Some suggestions are: Firstly, he needs to open the channel of dialogue at different levels and across various sectors. Track Two diplomacy can play a leading role in finding the pathways towards mutual trust building.

Secondly, the power of listening is critical to restore trust and cultivate relationship and friendship. It is highly expected that Mr Murphy would embrace diversity and respect different views and make his assessment based on facts.

Thirdly, he must not allow the differences to overshadow the entirety and totality of the bilateral relationship.

Fourthly, he must explore and expand the areas of cooperation that can serve common interest. Last but not least, he must convince the Cambodian ruling elites that the US does not interfere into Cambodia’s internal affairs.

He needs to understand that Cambodia, due to the past experiences of being the victim of great power politics, is very sensitive to foreign intervention. Therefore, maintaining independence and sovereignty are the top priorities in this post-conflict country.

To restore bilateral ties, both sides must adjust their strategy and tactics. Although the US is the defining actor, Cambodia also has the responsibility to rectify its perception and approach towards the US.

The Cambodian ruling elites must broaden and deepen their understanding of the complex foreign policy formulation of the US. There are many actors and stakeholders in Washington that can shape the US’s foreign policy towards Cambodia. Hence, Cambodia should avoid overgeneralising the US’s actions.

Emotional judgement and reaction to the US are not healthy and productive. Narrative and rhetoric do matter in foreign policy. Along this line, Cambodian ruling elites must restrain from unnecessarily criticizing or even attacking the US. The statements must be based on facts, evidences, and logic.

The US has a legitimate concern over the rising influence of China in Cambodia and the region. Therefore, Cambodia must keep convincing the US, with concrete actions and evidence, that Cambodia does not submit to China’s influence.

Moreover, the Cambodian political elites must keep their distance from the Chinese business elites and material interest as economic and monetary reliance might compromise political independence.

Looking forward, both countries have a responsibility to restore the bilateral trust and relationship and continuously cement the bilateral ties for common interests. Frank and frequent bilateral dialogues are critical to building trust and cultivating relationship and friendship.

Both sides must adjust their position and open their mind and heart to embrace the differences and work together towards the future.

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