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Clinton’s Visit an Upswing in a Sometimes Turbulent Relationship

Qohira, Misr
Qohira, Misr

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to the Asean Regional Forum in Phnom Penh next week will mark her second visit to Cambodia in eighteen months, marking a positive development in a diplomatic relationship with a history of ups and downs.

The United States and Cambodia first established bilateral relations in 1950, in a defensive effort by the United States, then in the throes of the Cold War. But more than six decades of conflicting diplomatic ideals, domestic conflicts and a fluctuating global political climate have meant an unsteady, on-again off-again association between the two nations.

The past 20 years have proven particularly turbulent, with the establishment of the first US mission in Phnom Penh in 1991 and the suspension of bilateral support six years later in response to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s coup against royalists led by Prince Norodom Rannaridh.

Recent history has proven more positive, however. The United States lifted its 10-year moratorium on aid to the Cambodian government in 2007; in the years since, political and economic relations between the two states have regained traction, coinciding with Cambodia’s nascent role as a key player in the Southeast Asian arena. This year, Cambodia serves as the chair of Asean, a body with which Clinton has rekindled strong ties after relations after they were neglected under the Bush administration.

“It seems to me that the relationship has leveled out,” Kenton Clymer, a professor of history at Northern Illinois University, told VOA Khmer. “While there continue to be problems from time to time, generally speaking, I think relations between the United States and Cambodia have become really quite normal.”

John Ciorciari, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, told VOA Khmer that the United States’ recent interest in Cambodia is more a means than an end and mirrors current American foreign policy in Southeast Asia on whole, structured with the influence of China in mind. In the subtly contentious relationship between the United States and China, the states and resources of Southeast Asia are inevitable points of consideration.

Cambodia, he said, “is located in a region where the United States has already largely increased its economic, strategic, military, and diplomatic interests, and in the context of a rising China that has close ties with Cambodia, I think the US government sees an incentive to engage a little more robustly. The Sino-US relationship has some elements of competition, and part of that competition is for economic, political, and military influence in Southeast Asia.”

To that end, US military officials have begun discussions of strengthening a military presence in the region, which American forces all but abandoned in the years following the Vietnam War.

Ciorciari argued, however, that in spite of increased attention from both China and the United States, Cambodia has no plans to pick sides.

“Every country in Southeast Asia without exception wants to avoid being caught in the crosshairs of a Sino-American war,” he said. “Part of what Asean countries are trying to do now, including Cambodia, is to set up economically and politically friendly relations with the US and China, without aligning themselves too decisively in one camp or the other, precisely because doing that would obligate them to take sides in the event of the conflict.”

These “friendly relations” have revealed themselves in recent months. Clinton pledged to “broaden and deepen the partnership” between the United States and Cambodia on her trip to Phnom Penh in November 2010, and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong urged American investment in Cambodian resources while meeting with Clinton in Washington last month.

Clinton will return to Phnom Penh next week for the Asean Regional Forum and bilateral negotiations with Cambodian officials. She has stressed the emerging role of Asean as a global player, politically and economically. As chair, Cambodia will bear the responsibility for spearheading conversations on topics of international interest, particularly the South China Sea dispute, which pits China against several Asean states.

“There’s no reason why Cambodia cannot be reasonably effective,” Ciorciari said. “Cambodia’s senior diplomats are capable of exercising effective leadership if they have the will to be a constructive player in Asean.”

It is unclear how the relationship between the United States and Cambodia will progress after Cambodia’s chairmanship expires. Though revamped foreign policy has thrust Cambodia into the current diplomatic arena, the country’s relationship with the United States beyond the State Department remains limited.

“I don’t want to overplay Cambodia’s strategic importance on a global level, but it is located in a neighborhood where most of the world’s commerce flows, and that makes it a place where the United States has some natural strategic interest,” Ciorciari said.