Leader of ASEAN countries have accepted US President Barack Obama’s invitation for a summit in California in the first half of 2016, the White House National Security Council told the media on Wednesday.
A date for the summit was not provided, though Japan’s Kyodo news service quoted an ASEAN official as saying it will be held on February 15 and 16. ASEAN spokespeople were not available for comment yesterday due to the Christmas holiday.
Nina Hachigian, the US ambassador to ASEAN, said in a conference call earlier this month that the summit will revolve around US-ASEAN economic integration, maritime cooperation, climate change, women’s opportunity and the South China Sea dispute.
ASEAN, as a bloc, is the US’s fourth-largest trading partner, according to Hachigian.
Experts said yesterday that for Prime Minister Hun Sen, the meeting will focus on trying to cajole the US into giving Cambodia preferential tariffs while playing down concerns about a crackdown on the opposition and civil society.
“US deals come with conditions, and if they are not fulfilled, the US might not want to buy more from Cambodia,” said economist Srey Chanthy.
According to data from the International Labour Organization, Cambodian garment and footwear exports to the US in the first half of 2015 fell almost 9 per cent – to $914 million – in the past two years.
Raymond Tam, a Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia member, blamed rising wages, lower competitiveness and the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which will give Vietnam duty-free access to US markets.
The US provides duty-free status to a range of Cambodian products as well, but excludes garments, the main export.
Hun Sen had asked the US to expand the system of preferences in November, but Ho Sivyong, the director of the export-import department at the Ministry of Commerce, said he expects the US to continue to find ways to exclude garments.
Analysts said that while the TPP and competitiveness are factors, the US will also be considering Cambodia’s political situation.
The US State Department’s Bureau on Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in November expressed concern about the recent beatings of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers and the parliamentary actions against CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha.
“Hun Sen won’t brook any interference in the treatment of opposition rivals,” said Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer. “This puts the US at a dilemma – the US has to put the clamps on while trying to maintain a strategic relationship.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann yesterday said the US indeed needs to look into the human rights situation and apply pressure on the government.
“Two CNRP lawmakers were beaten in broad daylight by demonstrators who support Prime Minister Hun Sen, and CNRP leaders are still in jail for political reasons . . . Human rights activists and NGO rights were violated.”