Cambodia-US Relations under President-Elect Joe Biden 

US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 10, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
  • Seun Sam
  • November 15, 2020 1:24 AM

The US presidential election was officially held on Nov. 3, 2020, while there were many American citizens who had voted early and by mail-in ballots. Until now, President-elect Joe Biden has received congratulatory messages from many country leaders in Europe and some ASEAN members. 

China was slow while Russia is listed among the powerful countries that have yet to send congratulatory messages to President-elect Biden.  

Cambodia, an independent country and also a member of the ASEAN community, has not yet sent its congratulatory message to the president-elect. Foreign scholars and Cambodian scholars based abroad have claimed that Cambodia is waiting to hear the first message or reaction from China before making a decision whether it should send a congratulatory message to President-elect Biden or not.  

It is unfair to Cambodia to say that the country is waiting to hear from China to send a message. Cambodia is not the only country on this globe that has yet to send its congratulatory message to President-elect Biden. There are many more countries. Being a scholar in the field international studies, one should not be biased in one’s analysis since it may negatively affect public opinion and can affect those studying in the same field.   

While President-elect Biden will be president, there are still many problems before Jan. 20, 2021, when he will be officially announced as the 46th president of the United States. Hopefully, there is no political deadlock as Cambodia faced in the past. 

In statuses and comments on Facebook and Twitter, there are many discussions and predictions about the future of Cambodia-US relations under President-elect Biden. 

Many Cambodian NGO leaders hope that, under the leadership of President Biden, the US will pay more attention to human rights and democracy in Cambodia, and they also want the US government to pressure the Cambodian Government on human rights and freedom of expression violations. It seems like they put too much hope on the US government to solve their own problems.  Let us recall the first day of President Barack Obama and his final day as president of the US. 

During President Obama’s administration, President-elect Biden served as vice-president of the US government for eight years. We have to accept that President Obama is a very eloquent person. The way of delivering speeches of President-elect Biden is very similar to President Obama’s, referring to his meaning. We can imagine that the foreign policy of President-elect Biden will be very similar to President Obama, and he will pay more attention to Asia, or we can say that the “Pivot to Asia” policy will be revived. The US alliances in Asia such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam will be very warm if the US has firm policy with its partners.  The big problem in the US foreign policy is that it always changes under the leadership of each president, therefore it is a bit hard for its alliances to feel comfortable about having eternal relations with the US. The US has treated the changes of its foreign policy as a kind of democracy while its allies treated it as the Big Fear or a Lie to its allies. The different interpretation of US foreign policy is based on culture and ways of thinking of each country.  

Although the US foreign policy of President-elect Biden will be very similar to that of President Obama, there are points that make the president-elect a bit different from President Obama and President Donald J. Trump. There are big problems that the president-elect will face, including the problem of the COVID 19 pandemic, restoring jobs for those who lose their jobs due to COVID-19, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UN Human Rights, the political deal with Iran, the international treaty on climate change, and so on.  Keeping popularity as president of the US is the hardest thing in the world! US citizens vote for their president today and then criticize their president tomorrow.  It is not strange for a nation in which there are many highly-educated people. 

During his first mandate, the president-elect will need to tackle the prioritized issues listed above, and if he is lucky enough to be president of the US in a second mandate, he will have enough time to talk about small matters, particularly cases related to a small country like Cambodia, Laos and Timor-Leste.  

As a matter of fact, there are US congressmen who will talk about Cambodia human rights and they will demand that the US government pass sanctions on the Cambodian Government or high-ranking officials.   

Putting any sanction on the Cambodian Government will push Cambodia to be closer to the government of the People’s Republic of China.  The US is not perfect, the 10 ASEAN countries are not perfect either, while the EU countries also are facing their own problems. We cannot expect perfection from the Cambodian Government, so that we should accept the imperfection of each other.  

Cambodia still has a very long way to go. Look at its infrastructure such as roads, bridges and buildings—some of them were built in very poor quality.  The internal production capacity is limited, the education system and health care system are limited. Besides human rights situations and freedom of expression, there are many priority points that need support from other countries. Cambodia really needs to improve its internal capacity! Let the citizens of Cambodia make a decision on the fate of their own country by themselves.  

However, the Cambodian Government should pay more attention to social injustice and climate change since developing countries usually become the victims of climate change, exacerbated by highly industrialized countries. 

Dr. Seun Sam is a researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. All views in this article are his own.

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