Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was among the few political leaders who publicly expressed their support for the presidential candidate Donald Trump in the US election last year, with the expectation that the US would prioritise economic cooperation.
Mr Hun Sen firmly believed that Mr Trump, as a businessman, would be more rational, practical and supportive of global peace and stability in order to promote economic development.
“To be honest, I want Mr Trump to win so badly. If he wins, the world situation will see changes and even get better, because Trump is a businessman, and as a businessman, he doesn’t want any war,” Mr Hun Sen said in November 2016.
“If Mrs Clinton won the US election, relations between the US and China could be difficult. And relations between the US and Russia could be hard to predict,” he added.
“However, if Trump won the election, I think he could become friends with Russian president Mr Putin.”
Early this year, he shared the view with President Trump that the media was “fake news” and an “anarchic group”.
Cambodia’s ruling elites believe that Mr Trump is not interested in promoting democracy and human rights, compared with his predecessor Mr Obama. Therefore, there is more room for further improvement in Cambodia-US relations.
However, Cambodia got it wrong. Mr Trump has proven to be unpredictable and sometimes emotional in his foreign policy decisions and behaviour.
Mr Trump’s surprise, quick decision to bomb Syria in April was in case in point illustrating his emotional behaviour. And Mr Trump’s approach towards the North Korean issue is not as rational and calculative as a businessman’s.
Under the Trump administration, the bilateral relations between the US and Russia and China have not been improved, but have become more confrontational and unpredictable.
Divergent interests and approaches towards the Syrian crisis and North Korea issue have caused strategic distrust and tensions between the major powers.
Early this year, the US renewed its demand for Cambodia to repay a war debt of $500 million. Cambodia regards the debt as a “dirty debt”.
The debt settlement issue has become one of the main stumbling blocks in forging closer bilateral ties.
The Cambodia-US relationship hit a new low after the arrest of the opposition leader Kem Sokha in early September and the visa ban on high-ranking Cambodian officials.
The anti-US rhetoric is on the rise and the bilateral strategic trust is eroding. Mr Hun Sen has called for national unity against foreign intervention, referring to the US.
The Cambodian ruling elites might have assumed that the US under Mr Trump is not interested in democracy and human rights and will not put much pressure on Cambodia with regards to the arrest of Mr Sokha.
As the situation keeps escalating and the US has persistently and consistently demanded the “unconditional release” of Mr Sokha, the assumptions are wrong.
The US’s foreign policy is not solely decided by the White House. The State Department and the Congress have a critical role to play in formulating US foreign policy, especially under a weak presidency.
The US will likely put more pressure on the Cambodian government if there is no urgent, appropriate settlement of the differences. The bilateral tensions will likely continue to escalate.
The worst-case scenario would be a targeted soft sanctions on Cambodia’s ruling elites.
The US’s strategic calculation is to not allow Cambodian democracy to fail as it will have significant regional political and strategic implications. Cambodia is seen as the frontline of contesting democratic values and politics.
Perhaps one of the interests of the US’s engagement in Southeast Asia is to promote democratic values and a political identity that is distinguishable from that of China.
Democracy is regarded as an important strategic tool to keep China’s regional influence in check.
Even though Mr Trump is not an advocate of American values, the US as a state institution will continue to nurture American values as they constitute core elements of the US’s soft power projection.
Chheang Vannarith is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.