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Alongside Clinton Diplomacy in Cambodia, Talk of Trade

Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sánchez speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. in March.

WASHINGTON DC - Several US officials traveled to Phnom Penh last week with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, comprising a broad effort to strengthen American ties with Cambodia and the region.

Among them was Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sanchez, who met with economic officials and business leaders on Friday at the inaugural US-Asean Business Forum in Siem Reap.

“There are several growing markets in Southeast Asia, so it’s a priority in terms of exports,” Mara Lee, a Commerce Department spokeswoman, told VOA Khmer on Friday. “The undersecretary has invested a lot of time in facilitating trade relations with the region.”

Sanchez’s efforts contributed to the ongoing discourse between the US and Cambodia this week, centered on the weeklong Asean Regional Forum in Phnom Penh.

The freshly strengthened ties between the two countries are part of an ongoing “pivot to Asia” policy, an attempt to establish American political and economic footing in the region in the face of a China’s growing influence.

Sanchez was joined at the forum on Friday by Clinton and Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats.

The dialogue of the day stressed the potential for strong commercial relations between the United States and Southeast Asia. The audience consisted primarily of representatives from Asean’s 10 countries and executives from American companies with a presence in the region.

“American companies can provide infrastructure and energy to countries like Burma,” Lee said. “It’s an exciting opportunity in terms of the link between promoting an economy and promoting a people.”

In a week dominated by rhetoric and some disappointment, particularly Asean’s failure to progress toward a resolution of the South China Sea issue, Friday’s meeting saw clear progress.

For example, American energy giant General Electric signed a contract with the SOMA Group, a Cambodian industrial conglomerate, to provide them with gas engine technology to power a biomass-energy initiative in the Cambodian countryside.

The deal helps with US President Barack Obama’s National Export Initiative goal of doubling US exports by 2014, which has yielded a $6 billion jump in annual exports to Asean countries in the last year alone. Exports to Southeast Asia totaled at $76 billion in 2011.