Khmer Times, Sunday, 24 January 2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry starts his two-day visit to Cambodia today with the objective of further strengthening bilateral relations. Mr. Kerry will meet Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, and informally exchange views with leaders from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and representatives of civil society.
While bilateral economic and defense cooperation have been smoothly and gradually enhanced, political and diplomatic relations have been strained since 2013 due to different approaches towards balancing between peace and development, and democracy and human rights.
Mr. Hun Sen’s administration prioritizes peace and development while gradually promoting democracy and human rights. The Cambodian government is well aware of the importance of democracy in promoting long-term peace and development in the country, but believes the process should be gradual.
The US is persistent on promoting democracy and human rights in Cambodia. However, the US may need to be a bit more patient and try to optimize existing democratic space to further strengthen the capacity building of civil society and support human resource development.
The visit takes place amid domestic political tensions in Cambodia, rising uncertainty about regional security – especially in the South and East China seas – and emerging terrorist threats posed by Islamic State in Southeast Asia.
In such a complex interdependent world, international cooperation is required more than ever to address shared global issues and challenges. Countries, regardless of their size and power, have a role to play in maintaining peace and order. Cambodia-US relations should be understood and strengthened within the framework of global and regional cooperation and collective leadership to address regional and global problems.
As a small country, Cambodia strictly pursues a neutral and independent foreign policy. Building close ties or having proximate strategic partnership with all major powers is Cambodia’s core strategy. Balancing its external relations between China and the US is a challenge, but it is achievable if the US is more open and understanding of Cambodia’s position and needs.
To survive in the complex international system and evolving multipolar world order, Cambodia has no choice but to be friends with every country. Cambodia defines its national interest mainly from the economic development angle. Cambodia welcomes support and assistance from all major powers who are willing to help Cambodia develop.
Through the understanding of each other’s needs and strategic conclusion, Cambodia and the US can overcome the trust deficit and work together to maintain regional peace and stability, promote equitable development, and build a pluralistic and harmonious society.
Economic cooperation and integration should be made the priority. Technology and innovation are the main sources of US diplomacy.
Cambodia needs US assistance to gradually move up the development ladder from labor-intensive industry to more value-added manufacturing and services.
Economic development defines Cambodia’s foreign policy. The most viable way to effectively engage Cambodia is through economic means. To gain influence in Cambodia as well as in Southeast Asia, the US needs to deepen economic integration in addition to increasing the presence of its military.
The US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a welcome move but it needs to be more inclusive. China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region should be included in this new gold standard regional trade arrangement.
If the US truly promotes the rise of all countries, it must further lend its support to less developed countries in the region, particularly in the Mekong sub-region, in order to narrow the development gap in ASEAN. Upgrading the Lower Mekong Initiative, which was initiated by the US in 2009, is critical to regional development and connectivity.
Blessed with a demographic dividend, Cambodia has great potential to develop its economy and consolidate democratic values and institutions. More than 30 percent of the population is between 15 and 29 years old. A window of opportunity for the US and other development partners awaits if they want to tap into this generation.
The US has comparative strategic advantages in Cambodia given that the majority of the Cambodian students and young leaders are inspired by the US values of freedom and democracy. If the US continues to invest more in educational and cultural exchanges, it will build a strong foundation by projecting its soft power in the Kingdom and beyond.