A woman holds a portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni during a ceremony marking Cambodia's Independence Day in Phnom Penh on November 9, 2020. Cambodia is celebrating its 67th anniversary of its independence from France in 1953. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP

This article is a response to the piece written by David Hutt, which appeared on Asia Times on November 12, suggesting that “Cambodia should be worried about the Biden presidency.”

His suggestion does not make sense, for the following reasons.

First, Cambodia is not a criminal, and the US is not a police officer or prosecutor. Relations between Cambodia and the US are between sovereign states that have different sets of cultures, history and social fabrics. It is normal that over seven decades of relations, there have been ups and downs in accordance with each administration’s preferences and policies, but that does not make the relationship comparable to that between police and criminal.

Second, the fact that some countries adopt an anti-China policy does not mean that Cambodia has to do the same. It is now common to see that some countries are adopting a “friend selection criterion” that categorizes friends as those who are anti-China, regardless of whether those friends are communist or democratic.

Those who are not anti-China will be subject to trade and political sanctions just like what the European Union did to withdraw partially the trade preference from Cambodia under the facade of concern for human rights and democracy. Again, it does not make sense, because some of the EU’s closest friends are not necessarily democratic.

Currently, those who are anti-China are being treated like trendy superstars or first-tier countries while those who have good relations with China are being treated like convicts or second-tier countries. Are we going to adopt a world order based on “anti-China” criteria now?

Third, Cambodia has no preference on who should be the US president. Cambodia does not interfere in US politics or express preferences on American leaders. Cambodia doesn’t choose American presidents, nor does America choose Cambodian prime ministers. Suggesting that a specific US administration is good or bad for Cambodia does not change Cambodia’s inclination to enhance friendship and cooperation with all United States’ administrations.

It is also worth noting that although it is highly likely that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States, which I have nothing against, the US president and vice-president are not elected directly by citizens. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” through a process called the Electoral College.

Each state’s electoral votes are counted in a joint session of Congress on January 6 in the year following the meeting of the electors. The president of the Senate then declares which persons have been elected president and vice-president of the United States. The president-elect takes the oath of office and is sworn in as president on January 20 in the year following the general election.

David Hutt seems to suggest that the Biden presidency will likely take a strong stance on human rights and democracy, and that this is something for Cambodia to worry about.

As a matter of fact, it is the sovereign right of the US to decide based on its national interest what policies to adopt vis-à-vis Cambodia, but likewise Cambodia also has its own national interest and sovereignty to consider.

The simple rationale is that “your enemy is not necessarily my enemy” unless the US is adopting a policy akin to the anti-terrorism approach in the George W Bush administration that was pushing the strong line of “you are with us or against us.” In this case, the US might think it needs to treat China as a terrorist state and block all economic activities with it.

Fourth, it does not make sense to argue that one is respecting Cambodia’s sovereignty and independence, but one doesn’t let Cambodia makes its own choices.

Pundits keep arguing that they fear that Cambodia will lose its sovereignty and independence to China, falling under China’s orbit or becoming China’s vassal state whatever they may call it. Hutt suggested that Cambodia’s demolition of a US-sponsored building and the constant rumors of Cambodia’s intention to host a Chinese military base are the major sources of concern.

Then does Cambodia have to pay back all the costs or report back to donors each time it needs to amend a sponsored structure? If China or the US helps build any facilities in Cambodia, will they have special privileges?

This is nothing but hypothetical. However, one thing is certain, no matter what any donor contributes, it will definitely not become any sort of “shareholder” or “board director” over Cambodia’s sovereignty, territory and military base. It is the sovereign right of Cambodia to decide from whom it should seek assistance, and friendly partners should respect that. And Cambodia’s approval is definitely required before utilizing the sponsored facilities based on mutually beneficial terms.

Building infrastructure is costly, and thus far Cambodia only has one deep-sea port, which was built in colonial times. As a nation emerging from war, Cambodia is infrastructure-hungry, and the current superpower rivalry between the US and China is poisonous for certain aspects of Cambodia’s development. It is likely disrupting Cambodia’s self-determination in choosing a development path because, as Hutt suggested, Cambodia needs to worry all the time what the US might think when dealing with China.

Many pundits talk about sovereignty issues, but their arguments suggest that Cambodia should give up its sovereign decisions by listening to or following their lines. That seems to suggest that there is a “right” and “wrong” about independence and sovereignty based on whom you are partnered with. This is very self-contradictory especially when taking account of relations between nation-states.

Either way, the rumor about a Chinese military presence in Cambodia is a zombie case that will continue to haunt Cambodia so long as superpower rivalry continues. Cambodia needs to stand firm and expect constant attacks from anti-China forces.

No matter who will be the president of the US, Cambodia will always continue to promote friendship and cooperation with the US based on mutual respect and mutual interest, mindful that over the long term, it is normal for relations to have ups and downs.

If history is any indication, over more than seven decades, the bilateral friendship between Cambodia and the US has never changed regardless of shifts of administrations. If policymakers are swayed by periodical waves of hatred and discrimination against relations between countries, they are self-defeating and lack the qualities of statesmen. They will become seasonal online pundits who are out of touch with person-to-person contacts, which are definitive for relations between states.

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Sim Vireak

Sim Vireak is a strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh. He has written articles on a variety of topics pertaining to Cambodia's political economy, development and foreign affairs. The views expressed are of his own and do not represent those of his affiliation.