PHNOM PENH —
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is being pressed to ensure that democratic reforms and human rights are at the top of the agenda when he meets here Tuesday with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP).
With opposition leader Sam Rainsy in self-imposed exile to avoid what is widely considered to be politically motivated defamation charges and 17 opposition members and activists in prison, rights groups say any improved diplomatic ties must be accompanied with Cambodian guarantees for reform.
Cambodia, by refusing to speak up with several other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over territorial claims in the South China Sea, finds itself in a position of increasing political leverage in the U.S.-China race for influence in the region.
"Cambodia is actually one of the small countries that shouldn’t have as much of an influence on that kind of political power play," said Ou Virak, a political analyst and founder of the Future Forum think tank. But with its membership in the 10-nation ASEAN, it’s "becoming a key country."
"But also because Cambodia is so close to China and has been somewhat of a Chinese pawn in the sense of an ASEAN unity," he said, "Cambodia has now become a key small country for the U.S. real pivot to Asia."
Bilateral trade, stronger ties on agenda
Kerry will visit Phnom Penh to discuss bilateral trade and strengthening ties with the Cambodian government ahead of a summit with ASEAN leaders and President Barack Obama in California next month.
Since the early 1990s, aided by favorable tax preferences on exports to the United States and European Union, Cambodia’s garment industry has grown from close to 1 percent of GDP to close to 10 percent. In the first six months of 2015, the sector employed more than 600,000 workers and produced exports valued at more than $3 billion.
This is the greatest economic contribution from the U.S. to Cambodia, said government spokesman Phay Siphan.
But he added that it comes with conditions, which include promoting human rights and democratic reforms in the country.
China, on the other hand, doesn’t apply the same conditions when making loans for much-needed infrastructure – such as roads and hydro dams – in one of Asia’s fastest-growing countries, Siphan said.
"We understand from the West it is sustainability that we wish and we respect that, and from China we don’t mind what way they rule the country," he added, "but we want a good partner in the economy’s survival."
Siphan defended the government against allegations of rights abuses, saying the U.S needs to change its "one size fits all policy" and have a deeper understanding of diversity in ASEAN.
"We are educated from the United States and we understand that, but you cannot force everyone to eat hamburgers," he said, adding that Cambodia remains constitutionally neutral in its relationships with Beijing and Washington.
Unsurprisingly, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party sees things differently.
According to opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, the Hun Sen government views U.S. foreign policy as encroaching on its sovereignty, which has led the ruling party to lean toward China. He said that country has done little to support economic development in Cambodia.
"China’s interest is exploiting the country resources," he said. It’s "not interested in democracy or human rights or fair trade. They see Cambodia as a country that they can exploit for whatever they need for the Chinese economy."
Chhay agreed that Cambodia needs to remain neutral. But he said his party’s values more closely align with those of the United States, which he said is obliged to uphold them in Cambodia.
"You cannot use Cambodia and try to be nice and look the other way when it comes to the interest of the United States over this Chinese issue," he added.
ASEAN summit in California
Meanwhile, following a narrow victory for the ruling party in the highly contested 2013 elections, analysts say the prime minister will seek a public relations coup with his trip to California for the ASEAN summit February 15 and 16.
"I think that close relationships with Washington offer him prestige and legitimacy, and his visit to California next month for the US-ASEAN summit is interpreted within the Cambodian government as a victory," said Sebastian Strangio, Phnom Penh-based journalist and author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia."
Political analyst Ou Virak said the United States would expect some concessions from Hun Sen in return for that legitimacy, something the prime minister and his ruling CPP have planned for well in advance with charges leveled at the opposition.
"The question is, can Kerry get the commitment of Hun Sen and the CPP in a way that is concrete enough, in a way that is going to last long enough and is going to be significant enough in shaping the future of regional security?" he asked.