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After 60 Years, US Relations Maturing: Analysts

A logo highlighting the 60 years of relations between the United States and Cambodia. (Photo: Courtesy of US Embassy, Phnom Penh)

A logo highlighting the 60 years of relations between the United States and Cambodia. (Photo: Courtesy of US Embassy, Phnom Penh)

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and the United States in 1950, the two countries have experienced periods of very difficult relations, including during the Vietnam and Cold wars. Despite these somewhat troubled periods, analysts believe Cambodia’s relations with the US in recent years have shown maturity at several political levels.

With Cambodia marking 60 years of diplomatic relations with the United States, political analysts say the small nation is increasingly important to US regional diplomacy.

Satu Limaye, director of the East-West Center in Washington, says that in addition to direct relations with the US, Cambodia’s membership in Asean presents another channel for it to interact with the superpower.

“I think in terms of the smaller countries having a role, having weight, having a place, being able to deal as part of the strength of a group that is increasingly integrated and has commercial ties with each other and people exchanges and discussion on common issues…helps lift the smaller countries’ role and weight in terms of dealing with the United States,” he said.

Cambodia in 1999 became the last of the current 10 member countries to join Asean. Although members have to pay an initial membership fee of $1 million and a subsequent annual fee of about the same, joining the regional body is seen as providing numerous benefits to member states, especially in areas of international diplomacy and trade.

But problematic relations between member states like Burma with the United States has complicated the group’s diplomacy.

There are occasionally contentious issues in Cambodia’s relations with the United States, including Cambodian allegations of US interference into issues of human rights and corruption.

The US recently withheld a distribution of military trucks in response to Cambodia’s decision to expel 20 Uighur asylum seekers in December 2009.

Limaye said that while these issues complicate the relationship, in the overall context of Asean, US relations with Cambodia, as well as with Laos and Vietnam, will be positive and “solid.”

Limaye’s comments followed the launch of the “Asean Matters for America” initiative early last month by the East-West Center, which highlighted growing US interest in Southeast Asia.

Scot Marciel, US Ambassador to Asean, told VOA Khmer at the launch that the military truck decision was based on Cambodia’s failure to abide by its international obligations, but he downplayed the incident’s impact on the long-term relationship between the two countries.

“We told the Cambodians that this would affect the bilateral relationship, and it has,” Marciel said. “Does it mean we’re not interested in a relationship? No. A relationship has many elements to it. It’s certainly in our interest to build a better relationship with Cambodia, and what we had to do is weigh the pros and cons of different actions, and we decided to take an action to not proceed with the shipment of some military trucks.”

There have also been notable positive developments in US-Cambodia relations within the context of Asean, including the US lifting of trade restrictions for Cambodia and Laos in June 2009 and the recent Lower Mekong Initiative with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The US will also help Cambodia host an international peacekeeping exercise later this year.

Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says that “challenges” like human rights remain in US-Cambodia relations, but that with time and high-level exchanges, the relationship is maturing. He noted the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations as an example.

“I think the ‘challenges’ are minimal, and there has been a lot of understanding,” he said. “And, of course, the United States has raised issues of human rights in meetings, but the important thing is that we have to explain each issue so that the United States understands the problems we are facing.”

He says these “challenges” do not affect Cambodia’s role in US-Asean relations.

Chheang Vannarith, Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace, said that recent US policy interest in the Mekong region has allowed Cambodia to interact with the US both as a member of Asean and as a Mekong country.

He pointed out that maintaining good relations with the US is crucial for Cambodia economically because the US is the world’s largest market and is a major market for Cambodia’s textile industry and agricultural products, which millions of Cambodian depend on, and politically because the US can help maintain regional stability.

He said that the recent cancelled military shipment reflects the US standing, domestically and internationally, on human rights protection and democracy, but similarly dismissed that it will affect US relations with Asean.

The 60 years of US-Cambodian relations have been marked with good times and troubled times, depending on changes in Cambodian and world politics. The early years saw the relationship prospering, only to sour in a diplomatic cut-off in 1965 after the spillover from the Vietnam War and the subsequent controversial US bombings of Cambodia.

The 1970 coup, backed by the US, marked a new height, but after the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, relations were again broken off and not fully restored until after the UN peacekeeping in the early 1990s.

Relations soured once more following the 1997 coup, after which the US suspended direct government aid. Since the 2007 lifting of the bilateral aid ban, relations have consistently improved despite lingering disagreements, especially on the issues of human rights and corruption.

Despite the legacy of US war in the region, Chheang Vannarith said people in Cambodia, as well as throughout mainland Southeast Asia, tend to like America and American values. People look more to the future, not the past, he said.

Nevertheless, he said, while Cambodia is politically more open than some neighboring countries, to further upgrade US-Cambodia relations would require addressing shortages in good governance, an area in which the US can assist.

He noted that Cambodia’s geography will make it an important country to major powers, but that Cambodia’s neutrality will keep a power balance in its diplomacy.

“I think Cambodia will have closer relations with the US, but not so close as to become distant from other regional superpowers like China,” he said.

Kao Kim Hourn said that this neutrality is partly in line with Asean diplomacy.

Cambodia has yet to meet its full diplomatic potential in the region, he added. The country is expected to take up the Asean chairmanship in 2012 and host important regional summits. The attendance of a US president during a Cambodian-hosted summit would be a milestone, he said.