Cambodia must accelerate economic reform and develop a sense of “urgency” if it wishes to continue to attract American investment amid growing regional competition, the head of the US-ASEAN Business Council said yesterday.
Alexander Feldman, the council’s president and CEO, who led a delegation of senior executives from eight American companies on a mission to Phnom Penh this week, said the best chance for Cambodia to benefit from an inflow of US private sector investment into the ASEAN region was to speed up its adoption of a long-awaited mutual investment protection agreement.
“A bilateral investment treaty would go a long way in addressing many concerns that American companies have when thinking about investing in Cambodia,” he said.
However, the treaty would necessitate that the Kingdom adopt an impartial judiciary that could handle commercial disputes, he stressed.
The lack of independent economic courts, which has been a continual criticism levied by American companies, has hindered US confidence in doing business here.
“If Cambodia was to have a fair and well-functioning commercial court, based on an impartial judicial system that follows the rule of law, more American businesses would look to expand operations into Cambodia, especially as the ASEAN Economic Community continues to develop,” Feldman said.
He added that with Cambodia’s young demographics and an impressive annual GDP growth rate of around 7 per cent, many American companies are eager to engage.
The US-ASEAN Business Council delegation, which included representatives of heavyweight US firms ConocoPhillips and General Electric, met Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior government officials during its two-day visit to Cambodia.
Feldman said talks with Cambodian state officials have always been positive during the annual missions, but the lack of progress was frustrating.
“There are definitely some ministers that see the importance of American businesses and reforms, and this is something that has changed over the years, but implementation is still slow,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the Trans-Pacific Partnership looms over the region, which stands to exclude Cambodia from the world’s largest trade bloc, the cost of inaction is mounting.
By contrast, Feldman noted, the Vietnamese government has been a lot more aggressive in seeking economic inclusivity.
“When we visit Vietnam and raise similar issues, we find that they actually implement necessary reforms and have developed a clear roadmap,” he said.
Additionally, with Myanmar pushing to open up to the world, American businesses are clamouring to gain a foothold in the next frontier market.
“Cambodia has still yet to build a vision for the future,” he said. “And outsiders can’t press them to choose a particular path, but we have laid out the benefits of being able to suddenly catch American investment.”
Anthony Nelson, director of the US-ASEAN Business Council, who has been visiting Cambodia since 2010, said that having continued engagement with the government and a constructive dialogue was important, but “none of that matters unless there is actually action”.