US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to Cambodia next month for a major regional conference hosted in Phnom Penh, where a host of diplomatic challenges awaits.
The Asean Regional Forum will focus on security in Southeast Asia, but it will also host many of the world’s major players, including North Korea, which said through Cambodian diplomatic channels it will be willing to talk to the US bilaterally and to reopen moribund six-party talks.
The contentious issue of the South China Sea will also likely be on Clinton’s agenda, as she moves to further engagement in the region.
Analysts say the issues of the South China Sea issue, democracy and human rights all stand as obstacles to greater US influence in Southeast Asia, which has keenly felt the growing political and economic influence of China in recent years.
Cambodia, which is this year’s rotating head of Asean, is especially friendly with China, which is a major benefactor of military and economic aid.
Clinton’s visit to Cambodia for the Asean forum will entail delicate diplomacy on a number of issues, said John Ciorciari, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan.
Maritime security in the region is one of these, he said.
“The United States alone has the military power to serve as a credible guarantor of freedom of navigation in East Asia, but if the US government wields that stick incautiously, it will encourage hawks in China to respond in kind,” he told VOA Khmer in a recent interview.
Human rights is another tricky issue in the region, he said, even as the US improves its relations with Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“Although engagement with those governments will necessarily involve compromise, stronger economic and political ties give the US more leverage to promote reform, both through official and unofficial channels,” he said.
Asean’s 10 countries comprise a population of 600 million people, creating much economic and political potential. Southeast Asian countries have increasingly been on the foreign agenda of US President Barack Obama, who spent part of his youth in Indonesia.
However, the variety of issues facing individual Asean countries makes it hard to deal with as a single block, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
And with Cambodia, with its close ties to China, the head of Asean this year, some diplomacy is made even harder.
“The problem in Asean is that you have some countries who are more concerned about the South China Sea and others like Cambodia who are less so,” he told VOA Khmer. “You do have some countries who are more concerned about the Mekong, and others who are less, but my point is simply that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen has a good relationship with China now, and so anything that offends China, he is going to try to avoid.”
Many officials are reluctant to characterize US engagement in the region as a counterbalance to the growing influence of China.
Cambodia’s ambassador to the US, Hem Heng, said the region faces security challenges that need joint solutions, and not just from Asia.
He called Clinton’s impending visit a good example of this, especially as Asia faces the threat of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, with human rights issues in Burma and the lingering maritime disputes between Asean member states and China over the South China Sea.
For its part, China has said it would prefer to negotiate over the sea with individual countries, bilaterally, and that outside countries should not be involved.
However, some analysts, like Sok Touch, dean of Khemarak University, say Asean members don’t have the power to negotiate equally with their juggernaut neighbor. Asean countries don’t have the armed forces of Western powers, so they need powerful allies to stand by them, he said.
“Does Asean have a backbone of military forces?” he said. “Asean’s military hides within its community.”
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Asean is weak not only militarily, but in its human rights and democracy work. That’s a challenge for the US, which tries to promote both in its own foreign policy.
“If the US allows Cambodia to disrespect the principles of human rights and still gives it assistance, military cooperation and other cooperation, China will criticize the US,” he said. “So the US needs to be very cautious in its stance over democracy and human rights.”
So far, US efforts on human rights have not been compromised, he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said human rights are not a hurdle for diplomatic discussions. Cooperation between the US and China is practical, he said.
Clinton will also be followed by a large delegation of US businessmen seeking greater trade ties in Cambodia and the region.
“They really look forward to having a chance both to work on business-to-business relationships, but also to participate in government-to-government exchanges,” said Anthony Nelson, a spokesman for the US Asean Business Council.
Hem Heng said the business delegation will meet in a forum in Siem Reap. This could help boost trade within Cambodia and Asean, which is moving toward greater economic integration, he said.