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US-ASEAN forum a good start

US-ASEAN forum a good start

The decision was quickly made and executed to create a US-ASEAN Business Forum in Siem Reap, with the unexpected result of having a powerful collection of regional leaders in one place during the year of Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship.

That’s to the credit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the US Chamber of Commerce.

The whispers after dinner centred around the hasty arrival of Myanmar President Thein Sein and the reform agenda he articulated, which not only seemed to herald the possibility of great change for his own country, but gave a kind of international statesmanship-quality to Prime Minister Hun Sun, surrounded by Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as well.

While many of us tired of Hillary Clinton as US first lady when her husband Bill Clinton was president and she tried to push through a healthcare agenda as her husband got continually hammered in the media for his infamous appetite for the ladies, I have to honestly say that Secretary Clinton certainly has learned something during her years in the corridors of power. She may yet indeed be recorded in history as a highly effective international diplomat.

She conducted herself with skill at the centre of the long table at Le Meridian in Siem Reap, flanked by Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposite such personalities as Chevron’s Steve Glick and Neak Oknha Kith Meng, before whisking off to Egypt to conduct negotiations with military leaders there. Hers seems to be a gruelling schedule by any reckoning.

The American-Cambodian Business Council swiftly and successfully organised a Thursday evening reception at the Ford showroom in Siem Reap, attended by some of the notable visiting business and government leaders. The credit goes to Amcham’s Jim Swander and Daniel Mitchell for pulling that off in record time.

One of the more interesting characters present at the US-ASEAN Business Forum was Under Secretary of State Robert D Hormats, formerly vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, who had served as senior economic adviser to Henry Kissinger. He came to Cambodia and joined in the discussions about ASEAN and then headed off with a big delegation to Myanmar. Officials like Hormats are showing tremendous interest in this region and that alone is worth taking notice of.

The challenge for the 10 member countries of ASEAN is to be mindful of unsavoury aspects there might be in an agenda to homogenise all of ASEAN into one big single entity upon which global brand names can be spattered without giving a hoot whether they are operating in Cambodia or Indonesia or anywhere else. This is a two-sided coin.

During my attendance of the conference on Friday, I noticed a disconnect between business leaders and the fact that they were even outside the US. The impression I had was that some were still talking to an American audience, barely noticing that they were in Cambodia.

Among the US diplomats present was US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K Thomas, who commented on the need for American business leaders to really listen to the local people. He was articulate and I thought spot on in the comments he made.

While the US-ASEAN Business Forum was the first of its kind, sort of stiff and unfamiliar, it did break some ground and give all the parties a small taste of what might be in store for the future.

Another interesting fellow who attended was Jacob Fisch, co-founder of Nest Investments, an unusual company with a different approach on the development of businesses. This week, you’ll see in these business pages my interviews with Fisch and some of the others I had the good fortune to meet at the forum. I hope you find these stories interesting.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]

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