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What Joe Biden’s Election Means for Cambodia

ISSUE 2020
No 35
Release 11 November 2020
By BONG Chansambath*, Master of Arts in Security Studies

After an extremely long and frustrating presidential campaign season, the United States finally elected former Vice President Joe Biden as its new leader, who will replace Donald J. Trump in January 2021. Although Biden was Barack Obama’s deputy for eight years and that both leaders shared similar foreign policy viewpoints, the President-elect will enter office with the world still largely plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic while simmering tension with China has become one of the most critical issues facing US foreign policy community. As a small nation located at the heart of a geopolitically contested region, the Kingdom of Cambodia has a relatively small yet critical stake in how the incoming Biden administration will handle its foreign policy towards the country itself. Since what happens in Washington, D.C. does not always stay in Washington, D.C., it is vital that we take a few moments to examine what Joe Biden’s recent electoral triumph means for Cambodia diplomatically and geopolitically.

Return of the Obama Foreign Policy?

Judging based on his campaign rhetoric and statements of his key advisors such as Antony Blinken, Susan Rice, and Nicholas Burns, President-elect Biden would likely replace Trump’s transactional “America First” foreign policy with a more conventional, principles-based approach similar to the one adopted by Obama four years ago. Biden would restore a key element of Obama’s diplomatic agenda, in which democracy and human rights factor more prominently in American foreign policy that may have negative implications on US-Cambodia relations, as the two governments has had disagreements on these two issues in the past. Unlike in neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, where America’s strategic interest usually comes before democratic principles, the incoming Biden administration may see Cambodia as that one place in Southeast Asia where principles can take the driver’s seat in its foreign policy. In addition, Cambodia’s close ties with China, which is largely viewed as an adversary by both the Republican and Democratic Parties, may incentivise Biden and his team to drive home the point that the President-elect would conduct international diplomacy with China differently from Trump and that he would focus more on democratisation abroad.

It goes without saying that even though statements coming from the US Department of State has continued to broadly emphasise human rights and democracy throughout Mr. Trump’s term, his indifference to these principles, his cosy attitude towards authoritarian leaders such as Kim Jong-un, his constant verbal attacks on the press, and his relentless efforts to undermine democratic institutions and norms in the United States have largely undercut democracypromoting efforts by his own officials. This is why restoration of elements of Obama’s foreign policy is a key message repeatedly conveyed by Biden and his surrogates, who seek to offer American voters a sense of return to normalcy, where the United States promotes democratisation abroad, takes leadership roles in international organisations, treats its allies with respect, and places greater value on diplomacy.

When Obama was in office, bilateral political relations between the United States and Cambodian governments went through a rough patch and deteriorated because human rights and democracy were major sticking points that sowed disagreements and distrust. Although Biden never mentioned Cambodia on the campaign trail, his rhetoric indicates that countries arbitrarily judged by the Americans as having troubling rights records, except for treaty allies and security partners, will come under closer scrutiny of Washington. Therefore, we should not rule out the possibility of increasing diplomatic frictions between the two governments in the coming years, especially since Biden’s first term will overlap with the Cambodian commune and general elections in 2022 and 2023, respectively. The reality on the ground, however, still depends on how much the two countries are willing and able to move beyond rights issues and work together to advance their shared interests.

On the other hand, Biden’s election may bring more energy to US diplomatic engagement with Cambodia and, to a further extent, Southeast Asia. Whether the President-elect will bring about, as some analysts put it, “pivot to Asia 2.0,” in which the United States invests more diplomatic, economic, and military resources in the Asia-Pacific region after years of distraction created by wars in the Middle East, or the continuation of Trump’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy, Cambodia will continue to play a key role in US strategy in continental Southeast Asia where Chinese economic presence is highly visible. As US-China strategic contest continues to ramp up gradually, both sides would leave no stone unturned and step up their engagements with Southeast Asian states. If the incoming Biden administration chooses to be more pragmatic than its predecessors and move beyond the prism of human rights, we may see deeper and more pragmatic bilateral ties between Phnom Penh and Washington in such areas as demining, law enforcement, maritime security, Missing-in-Action (MIA) programme, transnational crimes, intellectual property, trade, education, healthcare, and defence.

How Will Biden’s Handling of US-China Rivalry Affect Cambodia?

Amid an ongoing pandemic and hyper-partisanship in the US Congress, one thing that rallies the majority of American leaders, lawmakers, experts, and people on both sides of the aisle is their increasingly unfavourable opinion of China. During his time as chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 2000s, Joe Biden played a key role in ushering China into the global financial system and the World Trade Organization, which have been central to Beijing’s economic success over the past two decades. Now that China presents the most serious challenge to US global supremacy and that strong stance with Beijing is a key issue for the American public, Biden has done a complete 180-degree turn, where he shifted from optimism to condemnation. For instance, on the campaign trail, he repeatedly described Chinese President Xi Jinping in a highly critical tone, threatened to impose economic sanctions, and declared publicly that the United States must be tough on China.

Viewed from Phnom Penh, Biden’s election is a worrying sign that the ongoing strategic competition between the United States and China is going to escalate, except that the former may adopt a more coherent strategy in dealing with the latter. Domestically, Biden would find it politically challenging to walk back from his pre-election rhetoric of getting tough on China while 73% of Americans hold unfavourable views of Beijing, according to the latest study by Pew Research Center. As long as the pandemic continues to severely cripple the United States, Biden would need to treat the China issue very carefully if he and his party want to keep the White House in 2024. Diplomatically, although Biden is less hawkish than Trump, he will inherit US-China relations that have hit the lowest point in recent memory due to inflammatory rhetoric coming from both sides and the trade war launched by the Trump administration. Due to domestic and diplomatic reasons that compel Biden to appear tough on China, Cambodia may see its room for diplomatic manoeuvrability shrinking smaller as a result of growing direct or indirect pressure from either or both sides of the two powers come 2021.

One positive geopolitical aspect of Biden’s victory is that, unlike Trump, he is less sceptical of existing institutions. That means regional organisation such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) may receive greater and less erratic attention from the White House, which tries to offset China’s growing economic, political, and military clout in the region. Cambodia should seize this opportunity to act bilaterally and collectively with other member states to enmesh Washington deeper into regional norms, frameworks, and dialogues led by ASEAN while reinforcing the roles and centrality of this intergovernmental body. Promotions of rules-based regional order, peace, stability, and free and fair trade should be high on Cambodia’s agenda. A stronger and more resilient ASEAN will enable Cambodia to continue to maintain a delicate balance in its foreign policy, navigate US-China rivalry, and engage with other key players such as India, Australia, and Japan.

All in all, Joe Biden’s recent victory offers both challenges and opportunities for Cambodia, which tries to strike a balance between ties with the United States and China, on the one hand, and hedging through their geopolitical contest, safeguarding its national sovereignty, and support for ASEAN’s imminent role in Southeast Asia, on the other.

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