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Kerry Visit Shows Rising Regional Competition Between US and China 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is welcomed by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 26, 2016.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is welcomed by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 26, 2016.

The visit comes just weeks ahead of a major U.S. meeting with the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next month in California.

Editor’s note: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cambodia on Monday as part of a regional tour that also includes stops in Laos and China. The visit comes just weeks ahead of a major U.S. meeting with the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next month in California.

Kerry has emphasized trade ties during the trip, which comes after five years of the so-called “pivot to Asia” in U.S. foreign policy. The superpower has been looking to increase its presence in the Asia-Pacific as China rises as a regional power, but maritime territorial disputes between China and ASEAN members have proven a challenge to the regional bloc.

On the eve of Kerry’s visit, VOA Khmer spoke by telephone with Chheang Vannarith, a lecturer in Asia-Pacific studies at Leeds University in the U.K. about Cambodia’s role in these geopolitical maneuverings.

What are the challenges and hurdles in rebalancing the relationship between the U.S. and ASEAN, based on your observations?

U.S. policy has been actively since 2011 trying to return back to Asia in a policy called ‘rebalancing’ toward the Asia-Pacific or the ‘pivot to Asia.’ So far, the U.S. has had three important roles. First, to push an alliance system in the Asia-Pacific, especially with Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines and so on, to balance the power in Asia Pacific because of the sharp increase of China’s influence in the region. Second, the U.S. strengthens the role of ASEAN to control disputes as well as avert disputes in the region.

Third, it’s the economy. So far, the U.S. has achieved TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership], which is an important trade agreement and the biggest one in the world. The visits of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Laos and Cambodia reflect the efforts and the comprehensive goal to return back to the Asia-Pacific and especially to strengthen the U.S.’ role in the region.

Kerry’s visits are taking place just before the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands, California. Will there be any position changes regarding ASEAN, the U.S. and its cooperation with Cambodia, or regarding China?

The U.S. strategy in returning back to the Asia-Pacific is important because of the surge of China’s power. So, what should the U.S. and U.S. partners do to maintain the stability and security in the region? The meeting of the U.S.-ASEAN in Sunnylands, California on Feb. 15-16 is the vital context in the strategic relations between the U.S. and ASEAN. The focal point of talks is first about the economy. That means to make sure that the countries in the Asia-Pacific can economically cooperate and have economic integration, because if some of the smaller countries in Southeast Asia don’t have independent economies or just rely heavily on China’s economy, China can cover its influence in the region. Small countries in the region should be allowed to strengthen their self-reliance as well as their neutrality by strengthening their economies.

If all ASEAN countries become members of TPP, would that signify them distancing themselves from China’s influence?

The U.S. considers the TPP an important part of its foreign policy in the region, but the issue of TPP is that only four countries in ASEAN are members. Even Thailand is not a member yet. So, I think the U.S. should push forward to expand membership of the TPP to reach out to ASEAN nations, as well as China. Because when there are more people giving mutual help, it can help create stability and security in the region.

China has not wanted to see U.S. involvement regarding the South China Sea, but you mentioned the U.S. having a role in averting disputes. How deeply is the U.S. involved in this right now?

The tension between the U.S. and China still continues and it is going to be more complicated in the future because of the construction of artificial islands. That’s a security threat in the region, as well as for U.S. interests, because the South China Sea is an important international gateway in the Asia-Pacific. If China can control the region, it can impact the freedom of navigation of U.S. ships. That’s why the U.S. is deeply involved in the South China Sea.

But this is a political game to balance power in the region. And it is believed that without a power balance, crises and war can erupt.

Kerry will visit China after his trips to Cambodia and Laos. How can Cambodia benefit from these American diplomatic efforts?

First, we should look at the strategic position of Cambodia and second, we should look at Cambodia’s potential. Cambodia is a small and poor country in the region. So, to develop, Cambodia needs to make friends with superpowers—China, the U.S., Russia, India, all of them. Any countries that want to help Cambodia to develop, Cambodia needs to make friends with them. The U.S. has an important role to develop Cambodia because of, first, technology and, second, education and human resources.

The U.S. is still the Number One in the world. There is no one who can compete with U.S. regarding to new technology and new concepts and so on. So the U.S. can help Cambodia on human resources as well as science. The U.S. is also still a big market for Cambodia in exporting garments and agricultural products in the future. So the U.S. role is important regarding the economy, and the investors to Cambodia will be more compared to the past years.

I think that Cambodia does not favor any country, but favors all by making friends with all. Also, there is an international concept that sees Cambodia favor China very much, but if we look deeply, Cambodian policy remains neutrality, and it wants to be friends with all superpowers.