Amid soaring tensions over China's military drills in the Taiwan Strait, VOA's Khmer Service Reporter Sun Narin interviewed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Friday. Blinken told VOA that China's reaction to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan this week is "disproportionate and dangerous.” He said the United States will not respond with any provocative actions of its own. Blinken also discussed ways to address the worsening situation in Myanmar, including possible additional sanctions. Blinken said the U.S. wants a positive relationship with Cambodia, and that he discussed the importance of strengthening democracy in the country with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, with elections set for next year.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
VOA: Two questions first before we touch on the topics on Cambodia. So, one is about Taiwan and Myanmar. Just want to get your view on what do you think about the visit of Pelosi to Taiwan, and then there is a reaction and also response from China.
BLINKEN: First, wonderful to be with you, thank you. Speaker Pelosi is from our legislative branch, which is an independent, co-equal branch of government. And she has the, had the right to make that visit, as many members of our Congress have visited Taiwan, including this year. But regardless of that, China's reaction is so disproportionate and so dangerous. Whatever it feels about the visit, launching 11 ballistic missiles including over Taiwan, sending its ships all around Taiwan. Five of the missiles that it launched landed near Japan. And I think what you're hearing from countries throughout the region, including ASEAN, which put out a statement, is real concern about how destabilizing and dangerous these actions can be. So, I think it's very important to act responsibly. The United States is not going to engage in any provocative actions of our own. We think the seas should be calmed. The Taiwan Strait is of vital importance to virtually every country in the region – so much commerce goes through there. If that were interrupted, it would have a terrible impact on the global economy, and on everyone's desire to recover from COVID. So, I think it's incumbent upon all countries, the United States, but also China, to act responsibly and not use the visit of a member of our Congress as a pretext for engaging in potentially dangerous and destabilizing actions.
VOA: In Myanmar we see the situation worsen.
BLINKEN: That's right.
VOA: Will the U.S. pose any economic sanctions on the junta, including the oil and gas enterprise?
BLINKEN: Well, I think what we've seen, exactly as you say, is a situation that's gone from bad to worse. Including with the heinous act of executing four members of the democracy movement despite the pleas from ASEAN, from Cambodia, from many others not to do that. And I think what we're seeing is that the regime is totally unresponsive to every effort to resolve the crisis that was created with the coup. And there's an effort by ASEAN over many months to implement the five-point consensus that the regime in Myanmar signed on to but has been totally unwilling to implement. Stopping the violence, freeing the prisoners, putting Myanmar back on the path to democracy. So given that, we think the countries have to look for ways to put more pressure on the regime – economic pressure, political pressure. They should engage with all of the representatives of the people of Myanmar, including the National Unity government. We have to press the regime to allow humanitarian assistance to reach people in Myanmar. And we should look at ways to make sure that weapons don't get to the regime. So, we'll look at everything, including additional forms of economic pressure and sanctions.
VOA: And what do you think ASEAN should do besides just excluding the junta’s foreign minister out of the meeting?
BLINKEN: Well, I think it has to take account of the fact that the regime has refused to implement the five-point consensus and draw whatever conclusions it must from that. I think making sure, right now, that there is nonpolitical representation in ASEAN is exactly the right step. But if this continues, I think ASEAN has to look at what that means, including suspension of Myanmar.
VOA: On Cambodia, I understand that you met Prime Minister Hun Sen.
VOA: What did you tell him?
BLINKEN: We had a broad conversation about many, many different topics. I think the most important thing I said is that the United States wants a positive relationship with Cambodia. We want to build on the good foundation that we already have. We're proud of the fact that the United States is the largest export market for Cambodia. I actually saw some wonderful producers of things like cashews and mango[s] that we're working with to help them reach international markets. We were very proud to have been able to provide vaccines during COVID, donate them and with no strings attached, to help Cambodia deal with the COVID pandemic. One of the things I'm very proud of as well is that we've been returning cultural heritage artifacts that were stolen from Cambodia and making sure that they’re returned; something I feel very strongly about, protecting culture. And so, we're working to — to deepen all of those ties. We've been working to strengthen our economic ties. But we also talked about the importance of strengthening democracy here in Cambodia, and in particular making sure that as elections are going forward next year, that they're truly representative and inclusive. This is something of course that Cambodia has done before: having multiparty elections. And the United States is not in favor of any particular person or any particular party. We’re in favor of a process, a democratic process, that allows everyone in Cambodia to feel like they're being represented in the elections and ultimately in government.
VOA: So, one question - what are potential consequences if Cambodia fails to conduct a free and fair election?
BLINKEN: Well, I'm not going to get into the hypotheticals. But again, I think it goes to all of our hopes for our own relationship. This is important mostly to the people of Cambodia. That's what they want. But it's also something that the United States cares about. Our Congress does, the president does, it's part of our own DNA. And we have our own challenges with democracy, but we're dealing with them very openly, very transparently, very directly. And that's really all we can ask is the countries strive to have systems in which everyone feels like they're represented.
VOA: One last question is about the Ream naval base. What is happening with Chinese and U.S. militaries? And will the U.S. ask to revisit after the completion of the construction?
BLINKEN: Well, this is first and foremost in making sure that Cambodia has a truly independent foreign policy and is not, does not feel pressured, of course, by anyone. And when it comes to the Ream naval base, I think countries throughout the region would be very concerned if any one country had exclusive control or use of any portion of the base or was doing anything there that undermined the security of other countries in the region. So, I think it's important to have transparency and to make sure that the base is open to all, and not the exclusive use of any one country.
This story originated in VOA's Khmer Service