Executive Director, Southeast Asia, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
August 11, 2022
The Biden Administration has pursued the strategically sound policy of increasing high-level engagement with Southeast Asia. Multiple visits to the region by the Secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Vice President, and others, leading up to this past May’s successful US-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, are a welcome and needed demonstration of U.S. commitment to the region.
The Administration’s focus on the region has matched its rhetorical support for ASEAN centrality, a key tenet of Washington’s Indo Pacific Strategy. China’s high-intensity response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last week helped underscore the importance of strong U.S. relations in Southeast Asia and the broader region. The ASEAN and APEC Summits and the G20 Leaders Meeting, to be held in Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia respectively during the fall, provide further opportunities to continue and build upon this momentum and deepen U.S. engagement in the region.
Against this backdrop, on July 19, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act (S.3052). Introduced by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ed Markey (D-MA), the bill is intended to support democracy and protect human rights in Cambodia. To advance these objectives, it provides for a range of economic sanctions against individuals and entities involved in human rights violations. At a time when the U.S. is trying to enhance its relations in the region, not weaken them, this bill raises three related concerns: timing; effectiveness; and geopolitics.
On timing, ASEAN functions via an annually rotating chairmanship. Cambodia happens to be the current chair, as it was during the Special Summit in Washington in May, and as it will still be at the Leaders’ Summit in Phnom Penh in November, which, hopefully, President Biden will attend. This feature of the ASEAN machinery means that the Administration must work with Cambodia as it seeks to advance broader U.S. interests in Southeast Asia. Sanctioning the country with which the U.S. is simultaneously trying to work seems strategically dissonant at best.
Perhaps more important than timing, though, is the question of effectiveness. Cambodia’s human rights abuses – political prisoners, kneecapping the political opposition, muzzling the media, and the like – are well documented, and sadly, are not unique in the region. But will U.S. sanctions – which will be unilateral, not done in concert with some international coalition – produce a better human rights environment? Given the track record of many unilateral sanctions against many countries over many years, skepticism is warranted. Public rebukes don’t tend to induce better behavior on the part of the rebuked. More likely is that sanctions will prove an early Christmas present for Beijing, with whom Cambodia is already worryingly cozy.
And that leads to the third issue, geopolitics. This legislation correctly raises concerns over Cambodia’s relationship with China. The bill requires the President to report to Congress on activities of the Chinese Government and military inside Cambodia, including through the Belt and Road Initiative. Such monitoring is vitally important; unfortunately, sanctioning Cambodia practically guarantees that there will be a lot more such Chinese activity to monitor.
Rather, continued engagement, as demonstrated by U.S. Secretary of State Antony’s Blinken’s conversations in Phnom Penh last week with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, is preferable. As Blinken told VOA, the United States wants a good relationship with Cambodia and emphasized the importance of strengthening democracy and ensuring that the country’s elections next year are “truly representative and inclusive.” This kind of engagement and diplomacy, especially while Cambodia occupies a high-profile place on the world stage, is a better way to bolster democracy and human rights.
Geography is inescapable; Cambodia is in China’s neighborhood and is already heavily reliant on China. But like its neighbors, Cambodia pursues balance in its relationships with China and the United States. The U.S. economic relationship with Cambodia is limited, and U.S. overall influence is limited as a result. The less the U.S. is willing to invest in Cambodia, the more that Cambodia will look to China to fill the void.
However, the U.S. potentially has a lot to offer, and has had some notable successes over the years in helping address issues ranging from labor conditions, child protection, and trafficking in persons to more recent work in providing COVID vaccinations and building up pandemic response capacity. These positive and successful engagements should be built upon, not undermined by sanctions.
As former Cambodian Ambassador to the United States Chum Sounry said in a Newsweek article, “Cambodians have a positive view of the United States, and our workers will flock to American companies to master new technology, learn new skills and be compensated fairly… Greater American engagement is good for American investors, future Cambodian generations and the region as a whole.”
About the authors
John Goyer is executive director of Southeast Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Goyer focuses on issues of market access, investment barriers, regulatory and other issues that pose challenges for U.S. business in Southeast Asia.