US Engagement with Cambodia Needs to Move Beyond the ‘China Factor’

Despite its concerns about China’s increasing influence, the U.S. needs to engage with Cambodia more, not less.

This week, U.S.Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman embarked on a regional tour to three Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. She was the most senior diplomat to visit Southeast Asia under President Joe Biden’s administration, and the visit was intended to send the message that U.S. is seeking closer engagement with the region. Many have argued that the main motivation of this increased engagement is the challenge posed by a rising China.

While in Cambodia, during bilateral talks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Sherman singled out many issues, ranging from the country’s democratic backsliding and shrinking civic space to the Chinese military presence at the country’s Ream Naval Base and Cambodia’s preparations for chairing ASEAN in 2022.

In reference to the growing Chinese military presence in Cambodia, she urged Hun Sen to maintain an “independent and balanced foreign policy,” and to keep foreign influence at bay. On democracy and human rights, she called on the government to adhere to the relevant international and domestic legal instruments and drop all charges against members of opposition groups, activists, and journalists. On this front, Sherman also had meetings with representatives from media and civil society groups, as well as opposition leader Kem Sokha.

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