US Praises Cambodia’s ASEAN Navigation

Prime Minister Hun Sen and US President Joe Biden during the special US-ASEAN summit in Washington in May. Photo from PM's Facebook

CANBERRA – Senior United States officials have praised Cambodia’s ability to navigate ASEAN issues during an eventful and challenging year.

State Department Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel J. Kritenbrink said the US appreciated Cambodia’s preparations for the ASEAN summit and its stewardship of the bloc. He spoke as President Joe Biden was due to arrive in Phnom Penh for the summit.

“It has certainly not been an easy time to chair ASEAN with, of course, the worsening crisis in Burma (Myanmar) as well as Russia’s continued illegal assault on Ukraine,” Kritenbrink said at a White House press briefing on Nov. 10.

“But it has been clear to us that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn have made ASEAN a leading priority and they, again, have skillfully managed I think the many challenges we’ve faced over the past year.”

Diplomatic ties between Cambodia and the US have been turbulent for years due to the US criticising Cambodia’s backtracking on democracy and human rights as well as its close relations with China.

In December last year, the Biden administration imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia, citing human rights and an increasing Chinese military influence in the country.    

During the same press briefing, US Ambassador to ASEAN Yohannes Abraham commended Cambodia as the summit host. He said the successes brought about by the ASEAN summit meetings would be crucial in deepening the critical relationship between the US and the region.

“And we’re very much looking forward to doing that and we have what we think is going to be a very fruitful set of days for the leaders,” Abraham said.

Abraham commended ASEAN for its invitation to Ukraine to sign a Treaty of Amity of Cooperation on Nov. 10 in Phnom Penh, adding that it showed ASEAN’s longstanding and principled support for the importance of respecting national sovereignty.

Importance of ASEAN's central role

In  Phnom Penh, Biden will join regional leaders in discussing issues including the global implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate change, economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, maritime security and freedom of navigation, and the situation in Myanmar.

Asked what the US expects from the summits, Kritenbrink said part of the reason Biden is at the ASEAN-related summit is to demonstrate the strong US support for ASEAN centrality.

It also highlighted that the Indo-Pacific is central to America’s security and prosperity. 

“And I think what you’ll see through the totality of our engagements and discussions and outcomes here is the fact that our closest partners here in the region are also committed to making concrete progress on these issues in ways that benefit all of our peoples,” he said.

While noting that the US engagement with ASEAN is important, Kritenbrink highlighted that some of the most important issues would be addressed in the coming week.

Regaining regional trust

Over the past years, US engagement in the region plummeted during former president Donald Trump’s tenure, raising concern as well as more distrust of US leadership among countries in the region.

However, the launch of Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework foreign policy flagship as well as inviting all ASEAN leaders to the US-ASEAN special summit in May demonstrated that the Biden administration has a strong desire to boost engagement with the region and regain trust, according to Kritenbrink.  

“From the very beginning, from shortly after President Biden’s election to his hosting at the White House as his first foreign visitor of the Japanese prime minister shortly, thereafter, followed by the president of South Korea, we’ve seen really just in this past year the President’s hosting of the US-ASEAN Summit at the White House, the US-Pacific Island Summit at the White House,” he pointed out, adding that Biden’s and his officials’ visits to the Indo-Pacific region can epitomize the symbolic move by Washington to regain trust and its foothold in the region.“So, I think the signal that we’re sending to the region is that America’s interests in this region are enduring. The region can count on the United States of America, and they can count on the United States of America in large part because, as we’ve indicated here, we can see that it is in our interest to remain engaged in this region which is so central to our own security and prosperity going forward,” he added.

In a separate press briefing at the White House on Nov 10, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that while in Cambodia, Biden will reaffirm the United States' strong support for ASEAN centrality and build on the achievements of the historic U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in May.  

"He will also hold a bilateral meeting with the 2022 ASEAN Chair, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen," Sullivan added.

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