US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Cambodia on January 25 and 26, seeking to “strengthen” the countries’ “growing bilateral economic relationship”, the US State Department announced on Friday.
Kerry will meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to discuss economic cooperation and an upcoming summit in California in February, which all 10 ASEAN heads of state will attend.
The Kingdom hopes to use the opportunity to further “open” US markets to Cambodian exports, said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Chum Sounry. The US provides duty-free status to a range of Cambodian products, but excludes garments, the Kingdom’s main export.
Experts yesterday said that Cambodia is feeling the pressure to court as many global markets as possible, especially given the free trade agreements, such as the US’ Trans-Pacific Partnership, being signed next door.
“Cambodia needs to survive,” said Mey Kalyan, a senior adviser with the government’s Supreme National Economic Council. “Cambodia must understand the implication of neighbouring trade agreements.”
However, Southeast Asia expert Carlyle Thayer said in an interview that Cambodian officials will have a tough time persuading the US to be more lenient, particularly with political tensions at a long-time high and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy in self-imposed exile to avoid charges widely seen as politically motivated.
“Asking for any concessions now, with Sam Rainsy overseas, is a bridge too far,” Thayer said.
Hun Sen had asked the US to expand the system of trade preferences in November, but Ho Sivyong, the director of the export-import department at the Ministry of Commerce, said he expected the US to continue to find ways to exclude garments.
Muth Chantha, cabinet chief for opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha, said he had not been notified by the US Embassy on whether Kerry wanted to meet with the opposition, but noted that an “opportunity to meet would be worthwhile”.
Thayer added that the South China Sea question would be on the menu in US-Cambodia talks, given Cambodia’s “vocal” insistence that ASEAN has no interest in the dispute, a position that benefits China.
“I can’t imagine America getting far [on this topic with Cambodia], but it could lay out concerns and discuss the value of a continuing relationship,” said Thayer.
The February summit will revolve around US-ASEAN economic integration, maritime cooperation, climate change, women’s opportunity and the South China Sea dispute, according to a statement issued in December by the United States ambassador to ASEAN.
Before coming to Phnom Penh, Kerry will travel to Vientiane, Laos, to affirm support for Laos as this year’s ASEAN chair.
Afterwards, he will go to Beijing, to discuss “a range of global, regional and bilateral issues, including North Korea,” with the Chinese leadership.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh had no additional comments to make about the official visit.