The new US ambassador to Cambodia says he will focus on improving relations between the two countries and improving trade between them during his time here.
In an exclusive interview with VOA Khmer, Ambassador William A. Heidt said many opportunities now exist for the two countries to build stronger ties.
“I feel very lucky to be here in Cambodia at a time when really there are a lot of interesting possibilities to work together more closely on those issues,” he said. “So I’m excited about making progress on those trade and economic issues. I’ve also noted that the people-to-people relationships between the United States and Cambodia is very strong.”
Heidt worked as an economic officer in the embassy from 1997 to 1999, speaks Khmer and is married to a Cambodian. He said he would also work toward improving Cambodia’s food security and environmental protections.
Heidt will work on establishing a Bilateral Investment Treaty, which would improve trade by encouraging investment, he said.
“We think that would help Cambodia track higher technology investment that will enable Cambodia to manufacture and export sophisticated projects, in what they call global value chains,” he said, adding that these days one product may be produced from input in multiple countries.
Cambodia exported some $2.8 billion in goods to the US in 2014, making it the country’s largest single export market. The US exported about $328 million in goods to Cambodia.
Heidt said Cambodia could also consider joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US-led trade pact that could open US markets further.
“Actually we hope all ASEAN countries come in somewhere down the road,” Heidt said of the TPP. “I think it’s going to be a powerful trade agreement. It’s going to help countries develop their economy, especially Cambodia, which has now become a middle-income country and wants to export more sophisticated product to the world. I think it can be very helpful.”
Heidt’s interview comes less than a week before Prime Minister Hun Sen and other ASEAN leaders are expected to meet with US President Barack Obama, in Sunnylands, California. The Feb. 15-16 meeting will focus on US-ASEAN relations, trade and security. Other meetings around the summit will focus on entrepreneurship and economic growth, Heidt said.
Chum Sounry, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Cambodia is happy to join with ASEAN leaders in the Sunnylands meetings, but what Cambodia would like most is the Bilateral Investment Treaty.
“This is the main goal that we want to increase the economic relations, particularly with US” he said. “And, we are also considering whether to join the TPP or not.”
Southeast Asia has seen renewed diplomatic interest from the US amid the growing influence of China in the region. However, Heidt said the US is not asking Cambodia to “choose between the US or China.” Rather, it would like to see Cambodia have better economic success.
“I think, as an economist, in the next step for Cambodia’s development, America is going to be very important to it,” he said. “The integration helps Cambodia to move up the value change in manufacturing. That’s why the United States is important too, so Cambodia’s job is to use the relationships effectively with both countries.”
Chum Sounry agreed, saying that Cambodia is looking for greater technology and trade relations with other nations in the world.
“As we have stated, even though Cambodia has good relations with China, Cambodia still needs to build good relations with other countries in the world, including the US,” he said. “The US is the biggest market of Cambodian garment products, so it is very important to strengthen greater economic trade with the US. It is our goal and hope.”
Kung Phoak, head of Cambodia Institute for Strategic Studies, said he sees the possibility for greater trade and ties with the US, particularly after the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry, earlier this month. That’s a signal of improved relations from which both countries can build trust, he said.
During his visit, Kerry said the US wants Cambodia to improve its human rights record, governance and democratic development. Heidt said those remain priorities for his US mission, as well. Economic development will help that too, he said, as will the non-governmental groups that operate here.
“We hope for step-by-step improvement in the Cambodian economy,” Heidt said. “Just like the Cambodian economy. As the Cambodian economy develops, we hope that its democracy develops too. And so to me, Cambodia needs to just keep making progress on democracy and human rights issues. I think some of the civil society groups in Cambodia are really very good for the country.”