PHNOM PENH —
U.S. Under Secretary of State Catherine Novelli met senior Cambodian leaders in Phnom Penh last Friday during a three-day visit to the country, discussing a range of issues including deforestation, the investment climate, energy and technology.
Novelli also raised the possibility that Cambodia could join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial U.S.-led trade agreement between Pacific Rim states.
Visiting just four months after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a trip to the Southeast Asian country, Novelli met Minister of Environment Say Sam Al and Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun, along with a top telecommunications official, journalists and tech-sector entrepreneurs.
"I think that our economic relationship is strong, with $3 billion in two-way trade, and we are the top country partner of Cambodia in terms of trade," she said during a meeting with journalists during her visit.
"We would like to enhance that, possibly to conclude a bilateral investment treaty as well as find ways to work to gather on practical issues that can really cement our relationship and help bring Cambodia to the next level," she said.
Amid ongoing political tensions in the country, the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen needs to do more to ensure political stability so as not to hurt investment, Novelli said.
"Companies like to know that they are in a place that is open and stable in terms of that openness," she said, adding that the country has shown great economic potential and could even become a member of the TPP, connecting to a market of about 1.5 billion people.
"The way that TPP was originally planned was that we would start with the countries that are the initial countries, but it was always planned that the TPP would be expanded," Novelli said. "Once everybody gets the current TPP approved and up and running, we'll be interested in having Cambodia be part of that TPP."
Despite rapid economic gains, Phnom Penh officials need to do more to secure foreign investment, some business leaders say.
Steven Path, president of the Cambodian ICT Federation, a trade group comprising the country's top information and communications technology entrepreneurs, told VOA Khmer that Cambodia's lack of trained employees is a major barrier to investment.
Len Tan, CEO of electronics firm ICE, echoed that sentiment, calling on educational institutions to be more receptive to commercial trends.
"If we had educational institutions that really emphasize human resources, I think it would help the economy drastically," he said.
Novelli also visited areas hard hit by illegal logging, which she described as an issue to which the country's environmental minister has shown impressive commitment.
In 2015, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders named Cambodia among the "deadliest" countries for journalists to cover environmental issues.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.