Obama’s Cambodia Conundrum: Human Rights Versus Strategic Interests

Whether U.S. President Barack Obama speaks out on Cambodia’s human rights record during his upcoming visit to Phnom Penh, as some U.S. lawmakers are asking him to, will be weighed against America’s broader interests in Southeast Asia, analysts said. 

–News Analysis

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Residents of Thmar Kaul village are taken away by police on Thursday for spray painting SOS on the roofs of their homes, where they also placed pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama. (Erika Pineros)

But just what the president says on the subject, and how he might say it, will depend very much on how Washington views Cambodia’s position in countering China’s rising influence across the region, they said.

In a toughly worded letter dated October 31, a dozen U.S. lawmakers—Republicans and Democrats alike, including Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain—called on Mr. Obama to publicly address a myriad of alleged abuses under the “autocratic” rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

They also called on Mr. Obama to request that opposition leader Sam Rainsy—presently in self-imposed exile—be pardoned ahead of next year’s national elections.

If the U.S. lawmakers get their way in terms of Mr. Obama’s discussion with Mr. Hun Sen, it won’t be without some major costs to relations between Phnom Penh and Washington, said Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy.

In their letter, the U.S. lawmakers argue that missing this chance to press democratic values in Cambodia would strengthen China’s hand in the country, and the wider region.

“If human rights activists want to press this issue, are they prepared to take the possible consequences of a deterioration of U.S.-Cambodia relations and a rise in China’s influence over the Hun Sen regime?” Mr. Thayer asked.

“The central point to be grasped is: Should human rights be the center point of bilateral relations [between Cambodia and the U.S.] to the detriment of all other issues? What about labor rights, and textiles getting special access to the U.S. market?”

Mr. Thayer noted that Washington’s real influence lies in its considerable military-to-military relations with Phnom Penh.

“The president should raise his [human rights] concerns. The U.S. should see how Hun Sen responds and work out a policy to rectify” the situation, Mr. Thayer said. “But there are other issues at stake including U.S.-Cambodia defense relations, which is about the only major conduit of U.S. influence” over Cambodia that outweighs China’s.

The U.S. is in the midst of a strategic “pivot” to the Asia Pacific, which  will significantly bolster the American military presence in the region. In a swing through the region seen as backing up that shift, Mr. Obama will be in Phnom Penh November 19 and 20 for the East Asia Summit and U.S.-Asean Leaders Meeting, the first visit to Cambodia by a sitting U.S. head of state.

Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said human rights may have to take a back seat on Mr. Obama’s visit.

“As the U.S. re-engages with certain countries in [Southeast Asia]—primarily Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma — it will have to temper its criticism of their human rights record and take the bigger strategic picture into account,” Mr. Storey said.

“That is to say, while the U.S. is committed to improving governance and spreading democracy in Southeast Asia, it is also keen to offset China’s growing influence in the region.”

With Mr. Obama settled in for another four years, he said America’s “rebalancing” in Asia will be gaining momentum, as will relations between Washington and Phnom Penh.

“On the whole, this will lead to an improvement in U.S.-Cambodia relations, though it also seems likely that China will continue to be Cambodia’s most important foreign policy partner. Under Hun Sen, China’s interests will be protected and promoted,” Mr. Storey said.

As in Burma and Laos, China has warmed relations with Cambodia thanks to the help of massive infrastructure projects, military aid and a seemingly free-flow of loans – though some note that Beijing’s terms and interest rates are anything but free.

John Ciorciari, an assistant professor and Asia expert at the University of Michigan, said that China’s largess will only work to a point, and “has already begun to sow resentment among some Southeast Asian populations.”

In such a situation, Washington might think of taking a different approach in the region, Mr. Ciorciari said.

“That provides an opening for the United States to compete effectively by offering a different type of great-power partnership based on stronger governance principles and respect for human rights. Asymmetric competition of this kind would be preferable to a race to the bottom in governance standards, both for the United States and for Cambodia,” he said.

Take, for example, Burma. Since President Thein Sein set the country on the road from pariah state to quasi-democracy in 2010, winning a reprieve from U.S. sanctions in the process, it’s been widely seen as a search for an alternative to decades of unchecked Chinese patronage.

Mr. Obama’s visit to Rangoon this month, another first for a sitting U.S. president, will be something of a stamp of approval for these efforts.

Joshua Kurlantzick, who closely follows development in China and Southeast Asia as a fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, said that the strong reform agenda in Burma could leave Mr. Hun Sen the new odd man out among his Asean peers.

“Obama realizes that, with Burma changing, Hun Sen is actually left out as perhaps the most repressive leader in the region. Obama also sees how Hun Sen has grown closer to China, so he’s aware of all these concerns,” Mr. Kurlantzick said.

“There are important interests in the pivot, but Cambodia is not that high among them, so I expect to see continued pressure on Hun Sen from the administration and certainly from Congress,” he added.

With regional allies already in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and maybe even Burma down the road, the U.S. can afford to push Cambodia on its human rights record, said independent political observer Lao Mong Hay.

“That [letter from the U.S. lawmakers] will put pressure on the newly [re]elected president to weigh more seriously if he could do something [in Cambodia] without jeopardizing the U.S.’s Asia policy,” Mr. Mong Hay said.

In a look ahead at Mr. Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia, IHS Global Insight, a U.S.-based business information and analysis firm, said Tuesday that Cambodia’s leaders should get ready for some tough talk.

Cambodia should “prepare for international condemnation,” IHS Global said in a briefing paper.

“Instead of applause, the United States is expected to raise serious concerns over human rights and steps taken by Cambodia against [the political] opposition.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, said that he wondered how much good U.S. criticism would do.

“The U.S. cannot shy away from this important issue. But frankly, I don’t think that even if Obama wanted to talk about this issue and press Cambodia on this there will be a change regarding [the] human rights situation in the country anytime soon.”

And that is why Mr. Obama will have to “find the right tone” in broaching the subject with Mr. Hun Sen, said independent political observer Chea Vannath, adding that a little extra American largesse—a bump in military aid, perhaps-would certainly help the relationship.

Mr. Hun Sen remains sensitive to his government’s image abroad, Ms. Vannath said, and though Cambodia recently lost out to South Korea for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, the government is expected to try for the seat again.

And like Mr. Mong Hay, Ms. Vannath said Cambodia needed the U.S. at least as much as the U.S. needs Cambodia, if not more.

Cambodia exports more than half of its garments-the lifeblood of the country’s export industry-to the U.S. and has long coveted duty free access to the American market.

Tellingly, U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott, who was among those who pushed for duty-free access for Cambodia garments in the past, was one of the dozen lawmakers to sign the letter to Mr. Obama asking him to speak out on human rights. And for all the government’s talk of China’s no-string-attached loans, officials in Phnom Penh privately smart at the high interest rates they must repay to Beijing, according to U.S. Embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks.

“It [Cambodia] is like a bird,” Ms. Vannath said.

“One wing is the U.S. and one wing is China, and a bird needs two wings to fly.”

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