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Asean Affairs    13  September  2011

Enter the Cambodians

By  Enter the Cambodians

AseanAffairs     13  September 2011

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It is time American senior officials got to know their way around Phnom Penh. Cambodia, one of ASEAN’s newer and smaller members, will assume the chairmanship of ASEAN from Indonesia later this year. The chair plays a key role in setting the agenda for ASEAN and ASEAN-based regional economic and security architecture such as the East Asian Summit (EAS), ASEAN + 3, and the U.S.-ASEAN leaders’ summit.

Many analysts and senior officials are focusing no further than the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Honolulu and the EAS meeting and U.S.-ASEAN leaders’ summit in Bali in November. September is the month when U.S. officials in charge of planning the president’s engagements at the APEC summit, the EAS, and the U.S.-ASEAN leaders’ summit start to feel the heat and need political leaders to focus on defining deliverables. What is the president going to point to as the results of his investment of time and energy in Hawaii and Bali in November? How will the meetings and agenda be structured? Will the president have the opportunity to genuinely engage fellow leaders, or will the hosts get hung up on protocol and sacrifice interaction for safer (but less useful) set pieces?

These are important questions and focus is necessary. However, the United States needs to extend planning cycles, connect the dots between Asia’s potential impact on domestic issues such as economic recovery and job creation, and invest more political capital in Asia. Only by taking these steps will the United States transition from a State Department- and U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM)-led involvement in Asia to a strategic engagement. Strategic engagement is the level required for the United States to reap real and sustained returns on investment from being an Asia Pacific nation.

This is the context that should bring American focus to Cambodia, a country of 15 million people run by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPC). The Cambodian economy is gaining momentum. Growth estimates from the World Bank for 2011 are 6.5 percent, with IMF estimates at 6.8 percent. Foreign direct investment is on track to reach 6 percent of GDP for this year compared to 5.4 percent last year. Inflation is estimated at 5.5 percent for 2011 and 5 percent for 2012, quite manageable relative to other Asian countries.

On the surface, Cambodia appears to be one of the ASEAN countries most influenced by a highly targeted Chinese charm offensive. Chinese influence in Cambodia was underlined in December 2009 when China compensated Cambodia with an estimated $1 billion in new deals for infrastructure and rebuilding Buddhist temples in return for agreeing to forcibly repatriate 20 Uighurs (members of a Muslim ethnic minority group in China). China has since focused on providing soft loans and military support for Cambodia, finding an eager partner in Hun Sen, who is seeking to build momentum for one of the region’s least-developed economies. The United States has offered some military support, but each of its effort has been parried by China, which consistently offers to top American offers.

But a closer look reveals real opportunities. Hun Sen is a pragmatist and realist. His path to consolidating power after years of gut-wrenching horror, including genocide, in Cambodia did not follow governance models that could be supported by countries whose foreign policies held human rights, democracy, and transparency dear. In truth, however, many Southeast Asian post-colonial leaders followed such paths in their nation-building push during the Cold War. Because Hun Sen’s efforts were carried out later than those of his neighbors, they stood out more starkly, framed by democratizing ASEAN neighbors like Thailand and Indonesia on one side and by the brutal repression of the junta in Burma on the other.

Evidence suggests that Hun Sen may not want to allow himself to be dominated by China. Cambodia’s economy has clearly benefitted enormously from Chinese trade and soft loans, but to sustain that growth and attract new investment that includes technology transfer, training, education, and linkages to world markets, Cambodia needs to get out from behind paternalistic ties to China. Its leaders are well aware of this and a more balanced foreign policy is a real possibility as a result.

Hun Sen has recruited highly talented Cambodians with international experience and strong links to the United States and Europe to his team. Leaders such as Chantol Sun, the Cambodian government’s investment guru, and special advisers like Sok Siphana, who is advising both the Supreme National Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and has strong links to multilateral development agencies, European countries, and the private sector, suggest important new openings for diplomacy and engagement.

The prime minister is interested in enhancing Cambodia’s international linkages. Cambodia has deployed hundreds of troops to serve under the United Nations Peacekeeping program around the world, especially in demining activities. In fact, Phnom Penh is lobbying for a rotational UN Security Council seat by 2013 to raise its profile in the international arena.

ASEAN’s partners including the United States should not assume that a Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012 means that Chinese interests will dominate as agendas are set for the EAS, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM+). Instead, diplomats should redouble efforts to understand the new Cambodian worldview and the country’s plans for development. The results of such exploration may defy assumptions that Phnom Penh will settle for Beijing-dominated development.

Approaching Southeast Asia strategically requires the United States to be a leader in this effort to uncover new opportunities for alignment with Cambodia. In the process, we should encourage other ASEAN countries and key partners such as Australia, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand to join the effort.

The goal should not be to compete with China in tit-for-tat aid, nor should we ignore core tenants of U.S. foreign policy such as governance, human rights, and the fight against corruption. Quite the opposite, in fact: if Hun Sen wants to stabilize and balance Cambodia, he must now move on to institution building, education promotion, and infrastructure development. The truth is the Americans are more than welcome in Phnom Penh. Now is the time to focus.

Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.


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