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Geopolitics of Rare Earth Elements in the Asia-Pacific Region

ISSUE 2019
No 15
Release 14 December 2019
By Dr. Hul Seingheng and Mr. Chhem Siriwat

Cambodia-US bilateral relations should be viewed beyond the paradigm of superpowers’ geopolitical rivalry. A key principle of Cambodia’s foreign policy is to make friends with all whilst being an enemy to no one.

As a small state, without prejudice to the protection of sovereign independence and territorial integrity, Cambodia sees no interest in creating animosity between any powers or relying heavily on any single source for security or market access. In other words, Cambodia is implementing a hedging and diversification strategy in its foreign policy.

Recently, the gradual and quiet increase of practical cooperation between Cambodia and the US elicits optimism for amelioration of bilateral ties. These fields of cooperation include, inter alia, humanitarian cooperation, cultural preservation, environmental protection, law enforcement and military cooperation. Functional cooperation is critical to restoring political and strategic trust.

Beyond the tit-for-tat communications of late, efforts from both sides to manage the relationship in difficult times should be recognised. It is normal for countries to have differences, but these should not overshadow the entirety of the bilateral relationship. The win-win scenario for both sides is to narrow down the differences while expanding the areas of functional cooperation. Pragmatism should matter much more than political ideology.

The early sign of warming ties arose from the resumption of cooperation, in October 2018, to find the remains of Prisoners of War/Missing in Action (POWs/MIA) on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Ann Mills-Griffiths, Chairman of the board and CEO of the National League of POW/MIA Families acknowledged Cambodia’s act of goodwill and considered it the “Golden Standard of cooperation.”

Furthermore, the US has offered remarkable assistance for cultural preservation via the Preah Vihear Authority. Support for demining activities was not disrupted and educational exchanges remain vibrant. For many Cambodian students, pursuing their higher education in the US is their dream as the US remains the leading country in terms of education quality and innovation.

In terms of military cooperation, in March 2019 Cambodia and the US signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement to strengthen ties in humanitarian affairs, education and military training.

In April 2019, army commander Lieutenant General Hun Manet also visited the US at the invitation of US Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, commander of the Special Operations Command Pacific, to attend a Pacific Area Special Operations Conference. The visit marked a significant milestone in normalising the troubled bilateral ties.

In the same month, National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun also led a delegation to the US to sign the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to promote cooperation in law enforcement against transnational crime.

FBI spokeswoman Kelsey Pietranton said:

The FBI is proud to have a longstanding relationship with our law enforcement partners in Cambodia. This Memorandum of Understanding between the FBI, the Cambodian National Police, and the General Department of Immigration codifies our existing cooperation around a host of issues of mutual assistance—including crimes against children, cybercrime, financial crimes, and the apprehension of fugitives—and further enhances the FBI’s commitment to supporting Cambodia in their effort to defend all human rights.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) also supports the Greening Prey Lang Project to conserve biodiversity and the ecological system of Prey Lang forest, which is one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining lowland evergreen woodlands. Prey Lang was designated a protected wildlife sanctuary in May 2016. The project will focus on addressing the key governance and management issues of Prey Lang protected areas in the provinces of Stung Treng, Preah Vihear, Kratie and Kampong Thom. The main task is to strengthen protection and preservation through strengthening law enforcement, as well as capacity building for officials in the four provinces. The project will also focus on improving community living conditions and community involvement in preserving natural resources, building infrastructure, providing conservation equipment and helping to organise a management action plan. The other ambition of the project is to implement the state land registration initiative at the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. The project will allow for the reduction of forestry crimes, such as poaching and land encroachment.

Among various endeavours, the Greening Prey Lang Project deserves special attention in terms of how both countries can cooperate on supposedly sensitive issues that often create uneasiness between the government and development partners. It is a hard truth that deforestation remains a key issue for Cambodia.

The core moral of the story is that instead of criticising and dwelling on weaknesses that stem from limited institutional capacity, which is commonplace in any developing nation, the US is working together with, and giving a helping hand to, the Cambodian government.

The ‘name and shame’ tactic is not reconcilable with Asian values. Such an approach often provokes a vicious cycle of defensive retaliation that discourages cooperation. Attacking each other’s weak points is not constructive and is the major obstacle to realising a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation.

Without discrediting the US’s support for advocacy activities, it would be mutually beneficial if the US could balance between supporting the means of advocacy and the means of delivery of state services.

The approach of the Greening Prey Lang Project should be replicated in other areas of practical cooperation.

It is imperative that both countries mitigate their differences and widen understandings by capitalising on the spill-over effects from increased practical cooperation across various sectors. Inter-personal friendship and trust are also important. Hence, frank and open dialogue between the leaders of the two countries needs to be encouraged. Both countries should put their people’s interests first. In the eyes of many Cambodians, the US remains one of Cambodia’s most trustworthy friends.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.