In a sign of “improving” relations between Cambodia and the United States, the Kingdom will host US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this year, officials confirmed yesterday. The visit would be the first by a sitting US president.
US President Barack Obama (right) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participate in a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington last August.
Joseph Yun, the US deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said yesterday that Clinton and Obama would make separate visits in July and November, respectively.
“We expect to have our Secretary of State here in July, as well as our President for the [ASEAN-US] summit,” he said, following a closed-door meeting with Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ouch Borith confirmed his counterpart’s statement.
“The participation by President Obama during the ASEAN-US summit in November in territorial Cambodia is a sign that confirms that the relationship between Cambodia and the US is improving,” Ouch Borith said, adding that further details of the visit could not yet be provided due to “security concerns”.
The secretary of state also said that he and Yun discussed arrangements for a US visit by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in March.
Michelle Bennett, acting spokeswoman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh, said she hoped Obama and Clinton would make a trip to the Kingdom, but that it was “too early to confirm”.
The announcement of both leaders’ impending visits comes amidst what US officials have termed a “strategic pivot” in foreign policy away from the Middle East and Afghanistan and toward East Asia.
Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research institution based in Washington, said yesterday that the visits would be “excellent indicator[s]” of whether the US could back up such commitments “with continuity”.
“Having unveiled the ‘pivot’ toward Asia, President Obama and Secretary Clinton now need to follow through in an election year.”
Bower also said the visits would demonstrate to Cambodia that the US values all ASEAN nations, not just the wealthier ones.
“Cambodia is important because the US and ASEAN recognise the need to invest in the lesser developed and newer ASEAN members. Cambodia needs strong signals from the United States to reassure it that the Americans are serious about all of the ASEAN, not just the larger countries and its allies and strategic partners,” he said.
While Obama’s visit would be his first to the Kingdom, Clinton included a two-day stop in Cambodia during a seven-country Asian tour in November 2010. During that time, she visited the capital and Siem Reap and met with government and civil society members, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and leaders of the opposition Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties.
Obama’s potential visit was the source of much speculation in October, after Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong announced the impending visit following a meeting with David Carden, US Ambassador to ASEAN.
Carden seemed to confirm the announcement, albeit in an ambiguous way, by saying: “The meetings have been set next year  for after the presidential election in order to give my president, our president, the opportunity to attend the East Asia Summit and the leaders’ meeting here next year”.
However, the US embassy at the time denied knowledge of any such visit by the President.