Cambodia Highlights Challenges to U.S. Asia Pivot

Cambodia Highlights Challenges to U.S. Asia Pivot

U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to Cambodia in mid-November was portrayed as a success by the media, marking the first time since the Vietnam War-era bombings in the 1970s that an American president landed in Phnom Penh. However, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s smiles for the camera hid the reality of a tense private meeting in which Obama pressed Hun Sen on human rights concerns.

It didn’t help that during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit meeting preceding Obama’s visit, Cambodia undermined ASEAN’s often-claimed political unity for the second time this year by blocking a joint position on South China Sea territorial disputes, Asia's biggest potential military trouble spot. Instead of supporting calls from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- the four ASEAN claimants over the islands contested with China -- for a unified ASEAN stance, Cambodia played into Beijing’s hands. In July, the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held in Phnom Penh had already failed to agree on a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years due to dissensions on the South China Sea issue. In November, Cambodian representatives stated that the dispute should not be internationalized, a position that angered Filipino and Vietnamese representatives.

Cambodia’s stance highlights the challenges facing the new American strategic commitment to the region. Phnom Penh’s position is obviously appreciated in Beijing and plays a crucial role in the two countries’ strengthening bilateral ties.

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