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Q&A With Keo Chhea, US Ambassador From the Kingdom of Cambodia

August 19, 2022 by Kate Michael
Q&A With Keo Chhea, US Ambassador From the Kingdom of Cambodia
Ambassador Keo Chhea (Courtesy Keo Chhea/Cambodian Embassy)

WASHINGTON — Cambodia and the United States have a deep history and many business and trade connections. The Well News recently caught up with the recently-appointed ambassador of Cambodia to the United States, Keo Chhea to find out more about U.S.-Cambodia relations, what Americans should know about visiting or doing business in Cambodia and how the country feels about being “in the middle” between the U.S. and China.

TWN: In a recent interview, you said that “the most important part of [your] work is to improve relationships.” What could the U.S. do to improve relations with Cambodia?

KC: The Kingdom of Cambodia always attaches great importance to its relations with the United States and believes that the long-standing ties of friendship and cooperation between the two nations can be further strengthened by the commitment to continue working together for the well-being of both peoples.

From my perspective, the U.S. would have to take a productive and constructive approach to Cambodia with regard to its strategic importance to U.S. interests, including encouraging economic exchange, combating terrorism, promoting democracy, health and trade, combating human trafficking and mine clearance.

In addition, oil resources and China’s growing investment will require the U.S. to engage actively with Cambodia to build mutual trust and expand development and bilateral trade. Alternatively, it calls for greater U.S. engagement through aid, trade, diplomacy and educational exchanges, not only to advance U.S. interests and values but also to balance China’s influence in Southeast Asia.

TWN: Cambodia, currently serving as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, played a central role during much of the immediate consternation over Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan while it hosted the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, with both the U.S. and China eager to lay out their respective positions. Read-outs from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s meetings with Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn differed pretty strongly between the Chinese version and the Cambodian version.

Do you feel this incident affected the key issues ministers gathered in Phnom Penh with plans to work toward over the remainder of the year?

KC: The tension over the Strait of Taiwan caused great concern. The timing was unfortunate since the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related meetings were underway. Cambodia issued a statement calling on all parties concerned to find a peaceful solution, maintain the status quo, and avoid any provocation for the sake of peace, stability, development, and prosperity in the region and the world.

Aside from that, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a statement calling for maximum restraint, refraining from provocative action, and upholding the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. It also expressed concern over any miscalculation that could cause a serious confrontation, ignite conflict, or lead to unpredictable consequences among major powers.

Cambodia brought together foreign ministers and representatives from 38 countries over the world in Phnom Penh to sit down within ASEAN (mechanisms and architectures) and discuss their concerns, grievances, and ways to promote peaceful and meaningful cooperation and solve problems together.

We have reviewed the progress made thus far to strengthen ASEAN community-building, advance regional integration, and enhance our cooperation with external partners for the rest of the year and beyond. We also exchanged views on regional and internal issues of common concern and interest.

Everyone, every party, has a part to play in solving the problems together peacefully, and diplomatically, which is reflected in the theme of ASEAN chair this year, “Addressing Challenges Together – ACT”.

TWN: Can you describe for American readers why it would be difficult for Cambodia to be “in the middle” of any issue between China and the U.S.?

KC: The new U.S. administration’s strategic policy focuses on improving the level of engagement with Southeast Asia, especially in terms of people-to-people activities.

The U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington in May demonstrates the U.S.’s enduring commitment to ASEAN, and recognizes the central role of the relationship in delivering sustainable solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges. The summit commemorated 45 years of U.S.-ASEAN relations and high-level engagement, and Secretary Blinken said in a VOA interview that the U.S. wanted to have a positive relationship with Cambodia.

Cambodia is in the center of the Southeast Asia region and is of geo-strategic importance for both its inland and maritime location.

The concern is that if Cambodia received more influence from China than the West, the imbalance would make it difficult for the West to maintain its influence in Southeast Asia.

Certain U.S. media have viewed Cambodia’s policy of neutrality as a zero-sum game. To them, if you are a friend of A, you are automatically an enemy to B. In this context, they see the real neutrality policy of engaging in friendly relations with every country, including China, as making Cambodia an enemy to the U.S. And this affects coverage for they are manipulating
stories for the American public.

China is an inescapable source of investment for Cambodia by simple geography, because
Cambodia is also in China’s neighborhood. However, Cambodia wants to maintain balance in our relationships with China and the U.S.

The less the U.S. is engaging and pouring its investment into Cambodia, the more opportunity China has to fill the gap.

TWN: Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about this (above) situation?

KC: I wish to share that as the ASEAN chair, my prime minister has said that three hot potatoes were falling into the hands of the chairmanship: the Myanmar crisis, the South China Sea and the situation in Ukraine.

The fourth hot potato emerged as the 55th AMM and related meetings were underway, since the U.S. speaker of the House embarked on a controversial visit to Taiwan.

Nevertheless, Cambodia hosted a successful ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and looks forward to hosting other important meetings in November.

TWN: Is that really all?

KC: Hearing one-sided stories is like seeing two glasses of clear liquid on the table. By looking at them, one cannot decide which glass contains pure water and which glass contains gin or even vinegar! One needs the senses of sight, smell, and even taste to determine correctly what glass contains what.

TWN: You have been heard to say that your post in America will be your “last leg” of ambassadorial work. Why is the U.S. a good place to wrap up your career and what do you see next for yourself?

KC: I have had a long diplomatic career. I would love to see the next generation of diplomats, who have excellent educational backgrounds and experience, serve the national interest and firmly establish Cambodia’s foreign diplomacy in the international arena.

As for me, I am in the late evening of my age already, and I am looking forward to a quiet retirement after this post.

TWN: What should Americans know about visiting Cambodia and about doing business there?

KC: Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder, is located in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia. Cambodia is endowed with diversified natural resources and rich cultural heritage and tradition. For nearly two decades, Cambodia has benefited from strong political stability and the respect and recognition of the international community.

What is worth stressing is the unwavering commitment of our prime minister to fully liberalize our economy and trade. Under his leadership, Cambodia joined ASEAN in 1999, then acceded to the WTO in 2004 at record speed.

Cambodia recently was ranked by the World Bank as the sixth-fastest growing country in the world and praised as one of the “Olympians of Growth” for its outstanding average growth rate of more than 7%. The International Monetary Fund describes Cambodia as a fast-growing, highly open economy that attained lower-middle-income status in 2016.

The Asian Development Bank underscored Cambodia as one of the new tiger economies of Asia. I hope the U.S. private sector takes up the opportunities to invest and do business in the Kingdom.

TWN: Lastly, a fun question! – What is your favorite thing about Washington, D.C.?

KC: My favorite thing is walking/jogging in the park located behind the Embassy. The environment there gives me fresh air and a relaxing moment and makes me feel at home.

Kate can be reached at kate@thewellnews.com

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