Asia Expert Picked for US Ambassador Job

Robert William Forden has been nominated as Ambassador to Cambodia by the Biden administration in a national announcement outlining key leaders in his administration. Photo from America Institute in Taiwan

Robert Forden brings China credentials

PHNOM PENH – Robert William Forden has been nominated as ambassador to Cambodia by the Biden administration in a national announcement outlining key leaders in his administration.

Forden is a senior advisor in the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau at the Department of State in Washington. He was deputy chief of mission and acting charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in China.

This 62-year-old Asian affairs expert, who speaks Mandarin and Vietnamese, is a former deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan, economic counselor of the US Embassy in Israel, and economic officer at the US Embassy in Vietnam.

Forden was also a deputy economic counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing and, in Washington, the deputy director of the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Heng Kimkong, a visiting senior research fellow at the Cambodia Development Center (CD-Center), thinks having Forden as US Ambassador to Cambodia is a great idea, given his strong background and expertise in Asian affairs.

“He has experience in both China and Vietnam in addition to Taiwan,” Kimkong said.

“This experience will give him a strong foundation to understand the complex relations between Cambodia and Vietnam and the trilateral relations between Cambodia, China and Vietnam.”

He believes that the agenda would be the same – trying to improve US-Cambodia relations in the context of China’s growing influence in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.

However, he is concerned that US-Cambodia relations will continue to face challenges, requiring both sides to put issues on the table and engage in frank discussions to settle differences, given the uncertainty and the US’s strong interest in how Cambodia-China relations develop, 

As China’s presence in Cambodia continues to grow, the US is increasingly worried about the potential Chinese military base in Cambodia. This is a great challenge for US-Cambodia relations, Kimkong said.

Forden must be approved by the US Congress before becoming the fully-fledged Ambassador to Cambodia. He would replace incumbent W. Patrick Murphy.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia's International Relations Institute, said the exchange of US ambassadors to Cambodia is routine to strengthen the two countries' diplomatic ties and their representation.

The attitude of diplomats affects the strengthening of bilateral relations and can also make relations more fragile due to the personalities of individuals. 

However, the US ambassador generally does not stray far from American policy towards Cambodia or ASEAN. The US will not use coercive and threat diplomacy. Rather, it uses the engagement approach.  

“We do not know exactly how the new ambassador will behave and understand the Cambodian context, but in Murphy's administration, he did well because he tried to understand the Cambodian context,” he said.

It was too early to say whether the new ambassador will bring much benefit to Cambodia. Some ambassadors have done well, some have seen ties strained, Phea said. 

Cambodia should have a proper attitude to the appointment as both countries try to cooperate in areas where they can promote mutual benefit.

“Misunderstandings and other issues shouldn’t turn into obstacles hindering the relationship and developments between the two countries,” he added.

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