U.S.-Cambodia Relations: Issues for the 113th Congress*

By Lum, Thomas | Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia, October 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

U.S.-Cambodia Relations: Issues for the 113th Congress*


Lum, Thomas, Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia


U.S.-CAMBODIAN RELATIONS1

Although human rights concerns place limits on the depth of the U.S.- Cambodia relationship, a period of relative political stability in Cambodia that began in 2006, combined with U.S. regional security and strategic concerns, has led to a movement toward deeper bilateral ties. U.S. interests in the Kingdom of Cambodia include social, economic, and political development, trade and investment, regional security, civil society, and human rights. As China's economic and political influence has grown in Cambodia and the Lower Mekong Delta region, the Obama Administration has attempted to bolster U.S. ties with Cambodia and other countries in the region.2 A key challenge for U.S. policy toward Cambodia lies in combining and balancing efforts to engage the Kingdom on a range of fronts while promoting human rights and democracy. Some policy makers and experts contend that U.S. relations with Cambodia should be restricted until Prime Minister Hun Sen reverses a trend of deteriorating conditions for civil liberties and democratic institutions.3

High-Level Diplomacy

According to some observers, Cambodia's close ties with China do not preclude improved relations with Washington, and Phnom Penh welcomes increased U.S. attention.4 The Obama Administration has taken tentative but meaningful steps toward strengthening U.S. ties with the Kingdom, particularly as Washington has sought to place greater foreign policy emphasis on East Asia.5 Hillary Clinton visited Phnom Penh in October 2010, the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in seven years, where she met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, King Norodom Sihamoni, opposition leader Mu Sochua, and others. During the trip, Secretary Clinton cautioned the Cambodians about becoming -too dependent" upon China.6 In June 2012, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namong met with Clinton in Washington, DC, to discuss bilateral and regional issues.

In July 2012, Secretary Clinton participated in the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh, where Area: 70,000 sq. miles (about the size of Missouri) Capital: Phnom Penh

she spoke about U.S. support for ASEAN, maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and six strategic -pillars" of U.S. engagement in the region: regional security cooperation, economic integration and trade, engagement in the Lower Mekong region, transnational threats, democratic development, and war legacies.7 The former Secretary of State met with Hun Sen and participated in the U.S.-ASEAN Business Forum held at Siem Reap, near the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

In November 2012, President Barack Obama traveled to Phnom Penh to attend the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting and the East Asia Summit (EAS). Obama was the first U.S. President to visit Cambodia. While in Phnom Penh, the President met briefly with Prime Minister Hun Sen-the usual protocol for a U.S. President on the sidelines of an EAS summit. During the meeting, Obama reportedly focused on human rights issues and urged the Cambodian leader to release political prisoners and allow opposition parties greater freedom. Human rights groups welcomed the call for improvements in Cambodia's human rights record, although some argued that the President should not have met Hun Sen at all.8

Military Cooperation

The U.S. government has devoted a small but sustained level of engagement with the Cambodian military, in part to maintain a degree of leverage in the Kingdom. U.S. military officials have expressed a desire for further cooperation with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) as part of the Administration's policy of rebalancing toward Asia.9 U.S. military engagement in Cambodia includes naval port visits, military assistance, and joint exercises related to international peacekeeping, civic action and humanitarian activities, and maritime security. Washington began military contacts in roughly 2006 with a small International Military Education and Training (IMET) program worth $49,000 and a focus on counterterrorism cooperation. …

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