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Obama Visit Would Boost US Regional Influence: Analysts

U.S. President Barack Obama.
U.S. President Barack Obama.

Political analysts say a visit to Cambodia by US President Barack Obama would greatly boost US influence here, where China holds much sway.

A US official said this week that Obama could participate in an Asean summit to be hosted in Cambodia in November.

The president and other US officials say they want to improve the US position in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Tuesday the US can have strong partners in the region by supporting Asean and the 10 countries it represents.

“In this region, the US still pays more attention to the influx of Chinese influence,” he said. “We have recently seen issues in the South China Sea create conflicts with many member countries within Asean. So the US has picked Asean as a strong partner.”

China makes disputed claims to a vast stretch of the sea, which including the Spratly Islands and other territorial waters off the coasts of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—all members of Asean.

Chheang Vannarith, director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Obama’s participation in the Asean summit would improve the confidence of Southeast Asian countries in the US commitment to the region.

“The US also sees the importance of Cambodia for enlarging its potential power to balance against China in the region,” he said. “So this win-win policy that profits Cambodia and the US, as well.”

Cambodia is the head of Asean this year, serving in a rotating presidency. It will host one summit in April and a second in November that will include so-called dialogue partners, including China and the US.

China has poured aid and projects into Cambodia and regional neighbors in recent years, expanding its reach and influence as the US has struggled with an ailing economy and two wars.

Chheang Vannarith said bilateral relations between the US and Cambodia have nevertheless improved in recent years, especially in security cooperation.

“This is a key starting point, to strengthen the relationship over national defense between the two countries,” he said. However, he noted, the two have limited economic ties.

Ou Virak said Camboida would do well to take advantage of a US presidential visit and the increased attention it would focus on Cambodia.

Such attention could lead to the promotion of investment, tourism and other sectors, he said, countering the bad press Cambodia has endured recently in terms of the beleaguered Khmer Rouge tribunal, widespread land grabs and ongoing human rights abuses.