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What the US vote means for Cambodia

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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and US President Barack Obama part ways after shaking hands at the end of the final US presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, last month. Photograph: Reuters

Running a search for  “Iran” on Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney's official website yields nearly 170 hits – a total of 85 press releases, 59 blog posts, 12 news articles and 11 speeches mentioning the controversial Islamic republic.

Search for “Japan”, and you’ll find 15 results; “Indonesia” yields five.

A search for the term “Cambodia”, however, turns up zero results and a suggestion that users double-check their spelling.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that as Americans head to the polls today to decide their next president, experts and academics remain divided over what a change in administrations might mean for the relationship between Cambodia and the world’s largest economy.

Cambodia’s ties with the US – formally re-established after the formation of the Royal Government of Cambodia in 1993 – have far-ranging implications on, among other things, aid, defence and trade, and the Romney campaign’s approach to each has remained a relative blank slate.

Romney’s stance on foreign aid was largely unclear until late September, when the Republican and former Massachusetts governor said in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative that he would establish “Prosperity Pacts” with developing countries, aiming to foster growth for small- to medium-sized businesses in countries that agreed to remove “barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurship” at home.

“And in exchange for removing those barriers and opening markets to US investment and trade, developing nations will receive US assistance packages, focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law and property rights,” Romney said.

“Look, a temporary aid package can give an economy a boost,” Romney added, making a case for promoting free enterprise abroad. “It can fund projects and can pay bills and employ some people for a time. But it can’t sustain an economy. Not for the long term.”

But Cornell University associate professor and Cambodia expert Andrew Mertha said he did “not think that ‘barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurialism’ are particularly egregious in Cambodia”, and that piling more conditions on US aid was likely to have the adverse effect of pushing Cambodia into China’s arms.

“After all, China is at a distinct advantage by attaching as few explicit conditions as possible in awarding aid,” Mertha said via email. “While the US should avoid a race to the bottom, it must acknowledge that Chinese unconditional aid is a potential game-changer in the region.”

Romney has not indicated whether Cambodian aid under his leadership would rise or fall, but the 2013 budget proposed by his running-mate, Paul Ryan, calls for a roughly 10 per cent across-the-board cut to international affairs spending, and for a further 10 per cent to be cut by 2016.

US foreign assistance under the administration of President Barack Obama, Romney’s opponent,  has increased by more than 30 per cent, from about $58 million in 2008 – the year before Obama took office – to more than $76 million last year.

According to Mertha, a reduction in US aid would be unlikely to have a major impact on Cambodia.

“If a Romney administration reduces US aid by 10 per cent, this would be easily made up by increases in Chinese aid, which has ballooned in recent years,” he said.  “The real question should be: ‘does saving 10 per cent in aid end up costing more by a net increase of Chinese influence in Cambodia?’ Given Cambodia’s recent support of China’s maritime interests in regional forums like ASEAN, Ryan’s calculus appears to be penny-wise and pound foolish.”

US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said he was “not going to speculate” about the potential impacts of a cut to US foreign aid, but noted that US aid money has helped Cambodians, and that “the value of USAID funding can be seen across the spectrum”.

Speaking of a possible cut, he said: “One would have to see how those figures would play out.”

“The devil will be in the details,” he added.

One area in which those details are somewhat clearer is in Romney’s approach to defence. The “China & East Asia” page of his campaign’s website calls for the US to “maintain and expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific” in order to guarantee open trade routes and security for East Asia in “the face of China’s accelerated military build-up”.

The policy is similar to the “pivot” of attention from the Middle East to Asia called for by Obama, in which most of the nation’s naval assets would shift to the Pacific by 2020.

Though Romney hasn’t specifically mentioned Cambodia, said Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales, his treatment of defence will likely hew closely to what Thayer characterised as a largely successful program of military exchange already in place under Obama.

“It helps modernise and professionalise the Cambodian military,” said Thayer, noting that defence funding from the US has been particularly helpful in guiding Cambodia’s well-regarded demining programs, and its participation in UN peacekeeping. “That’s a great sign of American influence.”

But defence records are just part of the consideration. Rights workers, for one, have their eyes on the pressures each might bring to bear on democratic processes.

Koul Panha, head of the free elections NGO Comfrel, maintained that the only difference in the two parties’ approach to Cambodian elections and civil liberties would be one of tone.

“They are not so different in terms of keeping monitors and trying to help the capacity of Cambodia to promote democracy and civil liberties,” he said, noting that, to him, Romney had a “more tough position on civil liberties in some countries in Asia”.

“He’s tough, especially to China, and China is a great friend to Cambodia, so this may be a kind of [tension] in Asia,” Panha said.

According to Panha, US-China tensions over Romney’s plan may not be limited to ideologies, but could spread to dollars and centsl.

“He tries to make sure that all countries respect the rules of the free-trade game,” Panha said.

In fact, at his speech to the Clinton Global Initiative, Romney made this a large part of his Asian foreign policy in the form of a proposed Reagan Economic Zone, “where any nation willing to play by the rules of free and fair trade can participate in a new community committed to free and fair trade”.

Romney’s website describes the zone as “discouraging imbalanced bilateral trade relations between China and its neighbors, limiting China’s ability to coerce other countries, and ultimately encouraging China to participate in free trade on fair terms.”

“The benefits of this zone – which will codify principles of free trade – will be a powerful magnet that draws in an expanding circle of nations seeking greater access to other markets,” the website reads.

According to political analyst Chea Vannath, Cambodia would be unlikely to make the decision to join Romney’s proposed economic zone.

“I think that maybe if this happened, it would go to ASEAN,” she said. “If we were to go into that, it would need to be as a bloc, not Cambodia as a sole country.”

Vannath went on to say that restrictions may alienate potential zone members, and that “Mitt Romney might underestimate the pride and opportunity that ASEAN has at the moment”.

However, she added, the proposition itself might not be disagreeable to the bloc of nations.

“Southeast Asia doesn’t want to put all its eggs in one China basket; they want to counter China’s influence as well,” said Vannath. “In that sense, if the US or Mitt Romney would be able to gain the heart of the ASEAN countries, then maybe it’s workable with some compromise in his policy to make it fit to the reality… ASEAN tries to maintain that balance, that equilibrium between China and the US.”

However, for observers like Dr Sophal Ear - author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, recently published by the Columbia University Press - whether Romney wins or loses, things will most likely remain business as usual in Cambodia.

“I’m not sure much will change, frankly, foreign policy is still all about national interests, and you could see that in the third and final presidential debate where Romney had a really hard time distinguishing what he’d do in real life compared to Obama,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at stuart.white@phnompenhpost.com

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