According to a readout of their meeting from the White House, Biden raised his concerns about Chinese construction at the Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, called for Cambodia to free jailed activists including Cambodian-American human rights lawyer Theary Seng, and urged Phnom Penh to open political space ahead of national elections next year.
Biden called for “full transparency” at the naval base on Cambodia’s southern coast, where he U.S. believes China’s military is constructing a base for its exclusive use, a claim that Phnom Penh denies.
“President Biden also urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to reopen civic and political space ahead of the 2023 elections. He also called for the release of activists detained on politically motivated charges, including U.S.-Cambodian dual citizen Seng Theary,” the readout said.
“President Biden reiterated the United States’ commitment to the Cambodian people and their aspirations for a more prosperous, democratic, and independent country.”
Theary Seng was jailed in July after being found guilty of incitement for her Facebook posts supporting opposition leader Sam Rainsy. She began a weeklong hunger strike on Monday in advance of Biden’s arrival in the country.
Human rights groups say she is among at least 50 political prisoners in the country.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan declined on Sunday to say how Hun Sen responded to Biden’s requests.
“But I would say the conversation was direct and candid and constructive. It was not acrimonious or harsh,” Sullivan told reporters in a press gaggle.
Hun Sen declined to comment on Biden’s concerns at a press conference on Sunday closing the summit.
“You can go to ask the US. I won’t answer. I don’t know what the US says since Joe Biden didn’t talk much with me,” he said. “Joe Biden came not to discuss Cambodia’s internal affairs. He came to talk about global issues.”
Biden is now in Bali, Indonesia, where leaders of the world’s largest economies gather amid heightened tension over Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s territorial ambitions toward Taiwan.
During his stop in Phnom Penh, Biden joined the US-ASEAN Summit, where regional leaders signed the U.S.-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which the White House touted as proof of increasing multilateral cooperation.
Biden and Hun Sen also discussed efforts to restore democracy and stability in Myanmar after the military coup last year, and Biden thanked Hun Sen for Cambodia’s support of United Nations resolutions supporting Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion.
“President Biden expressed appreciation for Cambodia’s leadership of ASEAN during a challenging year,” per the readout.
The last time Hun Sen and Biden met was in Washington DC in May, when Southeast Asian leaders gathered for the US-ASEAN special summit.
Hun Sen noted in a social media post that Biden during that trip expressed his condolences over the recent death of the prime minister’s brother.
“He is a person of sentiment and was very respectful, as he has also lost close family members – he understood my sorrow and shared his own grief with me,” Hun Sen wrote of Biden.
However, Hun Sen’s trip wasn’t entirely smooth. Cambodia-American Ouk Touch threw a show at Hun Sen during his visit, in what he said was an attempt to humiliate him.
Hun Sen expressed his frustration over the lack of legal action in the U.S. in a speech a few days later.
“If the U.S. considers shoe-throwing as freedom of expression, it is encouraging [the practice] in other countries,” he said “Now I am concerned for the safety of the opposition party leaders…We can also throw shoes at opposition party leaders’ heads in Cambodia.”
However, Biden has been on a sustained charm offensive toward Southeast Asia in his attempt to counter China’s rising influence in the region. He said the U.S.-ASEAN pact signed over the weekend would help address some of the “biggest issues of our time.”
"Together we will tackle the biggest issues of our time, from climate, to health security, to defend against the significant threat to the rule-based order," he said, opening the U.S.-ASEAN Summit.
"We will build an Indo-Pacific that's free and open, stable and prosperous, and resilient and secure.”
Cambodia is seen as one of Beijing’s closest allies in the bloc, though analysts say Phnom Penh’s co-sponsorship of recent UN resolutions backing Ukraine show it is also seeking to warm relations with the west.
However, next year’s elections are likely to test Cambodia’s relations with its democratic donors.
Most of the country’s most prominent opposition figures face arrest if they return to Cambodia, while Kem Sokha, the acting opposition leader, is still banned from politics, despite regularly meeting with foreign diplomats at his Phnom Penh villa.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party currently holds every seat in parliament, and although it allowed the opposition Candlelight Party to run in local elections, many of its leaders have quickly found themselves slapped with lawsuits or renewed legal charges. And Hun Sen seemed to warn last month the party could be banned like the Cambodia National Rescue Party, due to its symbolic affiliation with longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
Sam Rainsy, who lives in France, penned an opinion article for The Diplomat ahead of Biden’s visit calling for the U.S. president to “take concrete measures to hold Prime Minister Hun Sen accountable for his theft of democracy.”
“His administration must also ramp up its use of sanctions against the Hun Sen regime, using the same vigor and techniques it has used to target Vladimir Putin’s allies over their war in Ukraine,” Rainsy wrote.
The U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations advanced a bill in July that would sanction Cambodian leaders involved in corruption and human rights abuses. A spokesperson for Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told VOA Khmer they expected the bill, a version of which was passed in the House, to reach Biden’s desk by the end of the year.
"This legislation makes clear that the United States will not stand by as Hun Sen and his cronies corrupt Cambodian democracy, persecute and jail opposition and political activists, target free speech and independent media, and enrich themselves through rampant corruption," Markey said in a statement introducing the bill.
Additional reporting in Phnom Penh, Sun Narin