The US highlighted its commitment to enhancing relations and cooperation with Cambodia, while also supporting the country in strengthening democracy and human rights.

Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, made the remarks during a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Manet at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on February 26, as announced on the latter’s official social media.

During the meeting, Kritenbrink congratulated Manet on his appointment as prime minister and acknowledged the progress in relations and cooperation between Cambodia and the US, encompassing both bilateral and multilateral frameworks.

He also noted the September 2023 meeting in New York City between Manet and then acting US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.

Kritenbrink commended Cambodia’s stance on regional and international matters and lauded its successful chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022. 

He affirmed that the US intends to strengthen collaboration with Cambodia, especially during its tenure as the coordinator of the US-ASEAN dialogue from July 2024 to July 2027.

“[Manet] and Kritenbrink discussed intensifying and broadening cooperation in mutually beneficial areas, including trade, investment, people-to-people relations, defence and security,” stated the post.

According to a press release from the US embassy in Cambodia dated February 26, the discussions covered shared concerns such as enforcing UN sanctions against North Korea, denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, foreign assistance programmes and the search for prisoners of war (POWs) and missing combatants.

The announcement indicated that both parties discussed enhancing law enforcement by evaluating progress in areas like democracy, human rights, human trafficking, as well as fostering a free and independent media and regional security.

“The US remains committed to the Cambodian people and their aspirations for a more prosperous, democratic and independent country where all voices are heard and respected and Cambodia’s sovereignty is safeguarded,” Kritenbrink was quoted as saying. 

Em Sovannara, a lecturer of political science at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, noted that Kritenbrink’s statements and stance signify a diplomatic gateway for the US in its relations with Cambodia. 

However, he emphasised the need for further discussions to resolve any uncertainties. Particularly, he suggested that Cambodia engage in dialogue with the US to address any contentious issues, such as the situation surrounding the Ream Naval Base.

“Cambodia-US relations currently are not as robust as they were before 2017 when there was much cooperation, including joint military exercises. The US has ceased scholarships for Cambodian military students and has not reinstated them. The Cambodian side would need to address US concerns to foster greater understanding,” he stated.

Sovannara added that Cambodia’s relationship with the US is crucial, given the US’ significant influence in the UN Security Council (UNSC) and globally. He said that with its extensive network of allies, the US can provide diplomatic protection.

He also noted that the US stands as one of Cambodia’s largest commercial markets.

Seun Sam, an international policy researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said the relationship between the two countries is vital and advocated for more frequent meetings to find common ground on differing issues and strengthen their relationship. 

He highlighted that Cambodia will also begin coordinating interactions between the US and ASEAN later this year.

Sam suggested that the two countries focus on discussing issues where they can collaborate or find agreement, rather than dwelling on intractable disagreements.

“Cambodia and the US still have divergent views on democracy and human rights. It’s not that Cambodia lacks democracy and respect for human rights; rather, it may stem from different interpretations. The US maintains good relations with communist countries like Vietnam, often cited as an obstacle in Cambodia’s case,” he stated.

Sam emphasised the mutual dependence of the two nations, as the US is a vital market for Cambodian products, and the Kingdom plays a significant role in the US’ ASEAN diplomatic strategy, particularly now as Cambodia prepares to chair and coordinate the US-ASEAN dialogue.