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US Secretary of State Visits Amid Ongoing Political Tension, Rights Concerns


While the constitution calls for Cambodia to remain neutral in foreign affairs, Cambodia has stronger ties with China than it does with the US, due in part to China’s no-strings aid and investment in recent years.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cambodia Monday evening on an official visit, to discuss with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on the ongoing economic relationship between the two countries and an impending US-Asean meeting in California next month, State Department officials said.

A senior State Department official told reporters Sunday that US officials meanwhile “have concerns about political developments” in Cambodia, including the “fraught” relationship between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, so Kerry will meet with opposition officials.

“He’ll also meet with members of civil society to underscore both US support for democracy in Cambodia but also, importantly, US support for human rights, for civil rights, and for political space,” the official said.

Hor Namhong told reporters last week ahead of Kerry’s visit that talks would aim at boosting ties, strengthening cooperation, “and taking the relationship of the two nations to another level.”

Analysts say the visit is in part to address China’s growing influence in the region, and the contentious issue of the South China Sea. Kerry arrives from Laos, the acting president of Asean, four members of which have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea.

William Heidt, the new U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia (left), welcomes US Secretary of State John Kerry as he arrives at Phnom Penh International Airport on Monday, January 25, 2016 for a two-day visit in Cambodia.

William Heidt, the new U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia (left), welcomes US Secretary of State John Kerry as he arrives at Phnom Penh International Airport on Monday, January 25, 2016 for a two-day visit in Cambodia.

Pou Sovachana, deputy executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Kerry’s visit will help strengthen ties between the two countries, even as the South China Sea issue becomes increasingly pressing. Kerry will want to know whether Cambodia sides with China or its Asean neighbors, he said.

“This is an important issue, because the US is against the setting up of airbases by China in the South China Sea,” he said. “Their stance is clear, and that is to abide by international maritime law and to curb Chinese influence in the region. Thus it is mandatory to see about Cambodia’s stance.”

In order to counter Chinese influence here, the US must strengthen its cultural ties with Cambodia, alongside its economic endeavors, he said.

Kem Ley, an independent political analyst, said Kerry’s visit could signal a key moment for Cambodia and a “tough choice.” While the constitution calls for Cambodia to remain neutral in foreign affairs, Cambodia has stronger ties with China than it does with the US, due in part to China’s no-strings aid and investment in recent years.

William Heidt, the new U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia (left), walks next to US Secretary of State John Kerry as he arrives at Phnom Penh International Airport on Monday, January 25, 2016 for a two-day visit in Cambodia.

William Heidt, the new U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia (left), walks next to US Secretary of State John Kerry as he arrives at Phnom Penh International Airport on Monday, January 25, 2016 for a two-day visit in Cambodia.

That will make it difficult for Kerry to convince Cambodia’s leaders to support US policies, he said. “The diplomatic tie is a binding tie with China, and it’s difficult to turn back,” he said. “Even though other nations provide a lot of benefits, it is still impossible for our diplomacy to turn back.”

Cambodia has had complicated ties with both the US and China. The US backed the ouster of former King Norodom Sihanouk, during its war in Vietnam, and China backed the Khmer Rouge as it subsequently rose to power. The US has played a major role in Cambodia’s post-war development, as has China. But US aid has come with a push for improved human rights and democracy, unlike Chinese aid, which comes without overt conditions.

Neak Chandarith, director of international studies at the Institute of Foreign Languages at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said Kerry’s visit will unlikely lead to heated discussions or political tension. Talks will be to boost economic ties, a priority for Cambodia, he said. “The important thing is to develop the nation to relieve poverty through US aid and bilateral trade. Cambodia will benefit from these two points.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Phnom Penh International Airport on Monday, January 25, 2016 for a two-day visit in Cambodia. (Nov Povleakhena/VOA Khmer)

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Phnom Penh International Airport on Monday, January 25, 2016 for a two-day visit in Cambodia. (Nov Povleakhena/VOA Khmer)

Cambodia should consider becoming a member of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, he said. The TPP would provide many benefits for Cambodia, especially in its efforts to increase rice and garment exports and to diversify its industrial sector.

Pou Sovachana said the US should not forget the issues of human rights, freedom of expression and good governance, particularly the recent restrictions on opposition members and attacks on two opposition lawmakers—one of whom is a US citizen. “A major power like the US can support freedom of expression, the value of democracy, and the rule of law for the people and the nation’s best interest,” he said. “Moreover, the US can push for good governance.”

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