By Alex Willemyns
U.S. President Joe Biden will visit Phnom Penh next month for two regional summits, according to the White House, which said the trip will underscore America’s “enduring commitment to Southeast Asia” amid a growing rivalry for influence between Beijing and Washington.
Biden will join leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for one of the last summits of Cambodia’s chairmanship of the group, as well as the East Asia Summit, which has historically included leaders from Russia, China, Japan and India and Australia.
The Nov. 12 and 13 trip comes amid a flurry of summits, with Biden also scheduled to attend the G-20 Leaders Summit in Bali, Indonesia, from Nov. 13 to 16 as speculation percolates about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans.
It will also be the first trip to Cambodia by a U.S. president since Barack Obama’s visit the last time the country served as chair of the 10-country bloc in November 2012. That proved a frosty affair, with Obama pressing Prime Minister Hun Sen on his regime’s human rights abuses during “tense” meetings but otherwise avoiding overt criticism.
“The Cambodians just want to get through this time without a blow-up,” said Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Their last time hosting ASEAN in 2012 was a nightmare – they served as the proxies of China and wrecked consensus, and they’ve been hearing about that for a decade.”
For the first time in ASEAN’s then 45-year history, the 2012 summit in Phnom Penh closed without a joint statement, with Cambodia ending the bloc’s consensus position that disputes over the South China Sea be negotiated between Beijing and the bloc as a whole. The shift came two years after an upgrade of ties between China and Cambodia.
By comparison, “so far this year, they’ve done well,” Poling said.
“There’ve been complaints but they’ve managed a difficult time coming out of COVID, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the crisis in Myanmar,” he said. “If they can just get through this final summit, they’re going to breathe a sigh of relief: It’ll be the Indonesians’ turn to deal with it.”
One-on-one with Biden?
It is not clear if Hun Sen will meet privately with Biden during the two summits. Delivering a speech on Sunday, the prime minister only confirmed Biden’s plans to attend the summits and gave no further details.
If the pair meet, all eyes will be on the approach taken by Biden – the seventh U.S. president to serve in office since Hun Sen became prime minister – in the wake of five years of political repression that dismantled Cambodia’s democracy and pushed Phnom Penh closer to Beijing.
A lot has changed in Cambodia since Obama’s visit.
Most prominently, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which almost beat Hun Sen’s party at the disputed July 2013 national election, was banned in the lead-up to the 2018 vote. Its leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested for allegedly planning a “color revolution” under direction from the U.S. government, and remains on trial for treason five years later.
The spate of repression has not abated, with Hun Sen last week threatening to ban the Candlelight Party – a remnant of the opposition that his government banned five years ago – if it does not distance itself from comments made by exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
“Biden will be walking a fine line,” said John D. Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia analyst and director of the Weiser Diplomacy Center at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He said Hun Sen would seek “a more accommodating U.S. posture on governance.”
Since Obama’s 2012 visit, Ciorciari noted, “Hun Sen’s government has cast aside a pretense of democracy and engaged in political abuses that require stern U.S. criticism.” But since American officials also fear “driving Cambodia even further toward Beijing,” he explained, “the tone of Biden’s visit may not be dramatically different than that of Obama’s.”
The trip’s focus will remain the dual ASEAN and East Asia summits.
Notably, the United States and ASEAN are expected to officially upgrade diplomatic relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” during next month’s meeting, after Chinese-ASEAN ties were similarly upgraded during last year’s summit in Brunei, when it chaired the group.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said Biden likely would engage with Hun Sen only to the extent needed to help shore-up ties with the 10-country regional bloc he currently leads.
“The trip is mainly for the Biden administration to demonstrate its commitment toward engaging ASEAN, not so much Cambodia per se,” Koh said. “Cambodia happens to be the destination because it’s the current chair of ASEAN and is hosting the ASEAN summits.”
He said he doubted there would be substantial changes to the strained U.S.-Cambodian relationship coming out of the summit.
While both sides might pay lip service to improved dialogue, Koh said, “it’s difficult to imagine how Cambodia-U.S. relations can overcome the cumulative trust deficit that has built up over the recent years, especially as Phnom Penh continues to deepen its engagement with Beijing.”
Ultimately, Biden’s trip says more about the rivalry between Beijing and Washington, which Phnom Penh is in a fortunate enough position to exploit, said Sophal Ear, the author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia” and an associate professor in global political economy at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.
“This is about showing ASEAN love when China is both embracing and arm-twisting ASEAN,” Ear said. “Cambodia’s goal is to once again project to its people and the region that it is loved by the U.S. and respected by the U.S., while of course maintaining its ironclad friendship with China.”
Poling from the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Biden’s trip to Phnom Penh after five years of U.S. condemnation of Hun Sen will in any case serve as a testimonial to Western foreign policy failures.
“The U.S. vastly overestimated its leverage to affect change in Cambodia,” he said. “If sanctions, or trade restrictions or diplomatic naming-and-shaming were going to have an impact, they would have by now. The U.S. and Europeans just don’t have the influence they think.”