The U.S.-Cambodia relation has been lukewarm over the last decade in part due to the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama admonishing the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen on its human rights and governance practices.
In January, Cambodia abruptly canceled its annual joint military exercise with the U.S. In April, Cambodia kicked out the U.S. Navy Seabees, which provided humanitarian assistance throughout the country. All signs signifying the decline in the U.S.-Cambodian relationship. However under the Trump administration, the U.S.-Cambodia relations can see a reboot.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently declared, “America’s values of freedom, of treatment of people…freedom of expression…those are our values…I make a distinction between values and policy. A policy has to be tailored to the individual situation—to the country—to the circumstances…if we put our values in front of our policies, we have no room to adapt to changing circumstances to achieve our ultimate objective.” Mr. Tillerson is correct—insisting that foreign countries abide by U.S. values hinders the pursuit of security and economic interests.
Mr. Trump recently validated Tillerson’s sentiments during his address to the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Trump proclaimed, “I pledged to strengthen America’s oldest friendships, and to build new partnerships in pursuit of peace. I also promised that America will not seek to impose our way of life on others, but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust. Our vision is one of peace, security, and prosperity—in the region, and in the world.” This marks a shift in U.S. foreign policy. This is good news for Mr. Hun Sen and his government.
Since coming into office, Mr. Trump has reached out to leaders whom the Obama Administration publicly denounced and ostracized. In April, Mr. Trump praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for cracking down on I.S. and Islamic extremists. Mr. Trump congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after his political victory that gave him full control of the government. Mr. Trump hailed both Egypt and Turkey as key allies on the war on terror. Mr. Trump offered to meet Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup d’etat against a democratically elected government, establishing a military junta.
In late April, Mr. Trump invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is spearheading a war on drugs, to Washington for an official visit. Mr. Trump should next extend a hand in friendship to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
If Mr. Trump seeks to improve relations with Cambodia, he must consider canceling the $500 million debt Cambodia incurred during the pro-U.S. Lon Nol regime as a form of reparations for the clandestine bombs the U.S. dropped during the Vietnam War. Between 1964 and 1973, targeting Viet Cong sanctuaries, the U.S. dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on the Cambodian countryside, killing countless of civilians, obliterating villages and entire valleys.
While the brave and patriotic Khmer Republican soldiers fought in the trenches and jungles, including this writer’s father who was a member of the Khmer Republic’s elite Special Forces, in an attempt to prevent the nation from falling into communist hands, corrupt government officials sold U.S. military equipment, medicine, and rice directly to the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Republican government ultimately fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. In 2002, China canceled the debt incurred by the Khmer Rouge regime. The U.S. must do the same and cancel the debt incurred during the Lon Nol era. It is unjust that the U.S. demand Cambodia to pay for the debts from the early 1970s.
The debt forgiveness will undoubtedly spur improving relations between the U.S. and Cambodia. If Mr. Trump stay true to his foreign policy doctrine, the U.S. will not attach conditions such as adhering to “respecting human rights, and practicing good governance” to any new trade and investment treaties with Cambodia.
In Cambodia, Mr. Trump sees an expanding market for more U.S. goods. Cambodia is the new tiger economy of Asia with a GDP increasing annually at 7 percent since 2011, and a burgeoning middle class.
In the vital interest of the U.S. security and economy, Mr. Trump must reach out to Mr. Hun Sen. Both countries must conduct joint military exercises again.
Both countries must explore new trade deals. Like Singapore and Vietnam, Cambodia’s people and economy will benefit greatly if the country’s government balance the ties between the U.S. and China.
It seems as if both Mr. Trump and Mr. Hun Sen are destined to be best friends. They are both avid golfers. They both have successful children. They both face a hostile media. They both want their respective countries to be great.
Narak Kay works for the federal government in Washington, DC.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.