US Envoy Keeps Faith in Cambodia Ties

Counselor at the State Department, Darek Chollet speaks during a round table discussion with journalists after meeting Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, credit to the US Embassy

Top adviser says countries must stay engaged

PHNOM PENH--Cambodia and the United States ties remain strong, visiting senior US official Derek Chollet says, pledging to work with the country in ensuring the success of Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship.

During a round table discussion with journalists after meeting Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Chollet said the US considers Cambodia a friend, adding that both sides have issues on which they can agree to disagree.

“We believe these relations have the tremendous amount of potential. The frustrating thing we feel is like these issues coming up from our differences to stand in a way of us reaching our full potential,” Chollet said.

Chollet holds the position of Counselor at the State Department, where he is a senior policy advisor to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a wide range of issues and conducts special diplomatic assignments. 

He spoke of the need for the US and Cambodia to remain engaged and attentive on seeking common areas of cooperation that can benefit both sides.

 “So, the spirit of which we are engaging and the spirit of which we are coming here is to talk openly about the areas that we agree to disagree, but also it is very important that we stay focused on the future areas we can enjoy working on together to realize what we think can be significant potential in the relationship between our countries,” he said. 

He said this symbolized the close relationship between Cambodia and the US, which is more than the relationship between the governments.

“And I think that is still strong,” he said.

When asked if the deterioration of ties with Cambodia could affect the US engagement with the Southeast Asian region, he said the US had no concern because chairing ASEAN meant Cambodia was taking the regional role with great responsibility. 

“In term of what it means for ASEAN, being the chair of ASEAN, it comes with responsibilities, the more successful the meeting, the higher the bar becomes for those responsibilities, he said, adding that he was impressed by Cambodia’s very ambitious agenda as the chair.

“We are committed to doing what we can to try to ensure that Cambodia is successful as the chair of ASEAN.”

Chollet’s visit to Cambodia came as diplomatic relations between the US and Cambodia have continued to deteriorate and just two days after the Joe Biden administration imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia, citing human rights as well as an increasing Chinese military influence in the country.    

In response to the measures, Prime Minister Hun Sen told his officials to immediately check weapons and military equipment. If any American-made products are found, they must be put into retirement or destroyed based on their condition.    

He said he had been right not to purchase weapons from the US for national defense.

When asked about Hun Sen’s statement, the American diplomat declined to comment. However, he again expressed concern over possible Chinese military presence at the Ream Naval base and reiterated the need for Cambodia to show full transparency of the intent and the nature of that relationship, pointing out that any foreign military presence will affect not only regional security but also Cambodia’s sovereignty. 

Not against Cambodia’s engagement with Myanmar junta

In the same discussion, Chollet also revealed that in his meeting with Sokhonn, both sides discussed Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship.

“We also talked in detail about Myanmar, the recent visit by the Myanmar Foreign Minister to Cambodia as well as a trip to Myanmar announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Chollet said.

The US was not against Cambodia’s possible engagement with the Myanmar military junta leaders but the engagement should be purposeful, pointing to the current diplomatic stagnation and the worsening humanitarian situation in the country.

“We have made it clear about the kind of engagement we think would be the most constructive. We are at a diplomatic impasse with Myanmar and there has been great suffering,” Chollet said.

“We don’t just engage with no reason. We need to have a purpose,” he said, adding that it needs to be an inclusive process and ensure greater humanitarian access.

Hun Sen announced that he would visit Myanmar between January 7 and 8 at the invitation of the chief of the State Administration Council of Myanmar Min Aung Hlaing, signaling that as the ASEAN chair, Cambodia seeks to engage with the junta.

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