US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman is slated to visit Cambodia as part of her first multinational tour linked to her attendance at the special ASEAN-US Foreign Ministers’ summit to be held on May 25, according to the US’ top diplomacy agency.
Analysts said the intertwined events are meant to advance the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda for ASEAN and to play catch-up to China’s growing influence in the region.
The US Department of State announced on May 21 that Sherman will travel to Brussels, Ankara, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Honolulu in the US State of Hawaii between May 25 and June 4.
In Southeast Asia, Sherman will “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to ASEAN centrality and address a range of bilateral and regional issues, including efforts to urge the Burmese military to cease violence, release all those unjustly detained and restore Burma to the path of democracy,” it said using Myanmar’s former name.
Sherman will hold a series of meetings while in Phnom Penh, the state department added without elaborating on the specific agenda or providing dates.
In a tweet on May 21, Sherman was just as vague. “I am looking forward to my first trip as deputy secretary of state. In addition to leading the first US-EU dialogue on China in Brussels, I will meet with Turkish officials and civil society representatives in Ankara and renew US engagement with ASEAN in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand.”
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesman Koy Kuong referred The Post to the US embassy in Phnom Penh when reached for comment on May 22.
US embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier confirmed to The Post that Sherman will be visiting Cambodia but did not provide further details.
“Yes, the deputy secretary is coming. I don’t have anything else to announce right now, but I will definitely notify you when we have something more.”
Meanwhile, Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn will participate in the virtual Special ASEAN-US Foreign Ministers’ meeting on May 25, according to the ministry’s May 22 press release.
The ASEAN foreign ministers, it said, will have a discussion with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding ways to promote ASEAN-US dialogue, relations and cooperation. Topics to be addressed include the current global Covid-19 pandemic crisis and an exchange of views on regional and international issues of common interest.
“This virtual meeting reflects the political will and commitment to further enhance the ASEAN-US strategic partnership and long-term cooperation to ensure peace, stability, security and socio-economic development within and beyond the region,” the ministry said.
Bradley J Murg, senior adviser and distinguished research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, anticipated that the meetings between Sherman and her Cambodian counterparts will serve as an opportunity for the Biden administration to further clarify its approach to Southeast Asia in contrast to the policies of the Trump administration.
“Potential items on the agenda are likely to include the continued rollout of the new Mekong-US partnership, Washington’s understanding of and deep commitment to the policy of ASEAN centrality, and, inevitably, its continuing concerns regarding China’s role in the Kingdom,” he said.
Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said the Biden administration appears to be following the Obama administration’s approach to ASEAN, but with an added focus on US-China rivalry in the region.
According to Phea, Southeast Asia is a strategic region in terms of geopolitical conflicts because of its importance to issues like navigation of the South China Sea and its large pool of labour and that – for various reasons – some countries in the ASEAN bloc such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei can be expected to stand up to the world’s second-largest economy.
“[Sherman’s] visit to ASEAN shows that the US is extending its power in the region and looking to mobilise their alliance to hold back China’s power in the region,” Phea said.
Regarding Sherman’s visit to the Kingdom, Phea said Cambodian-Sino relations are so comprehensive that it is unlikely she would be able to do much to change that, whereas Cambodian-US relations have not been smooth in recent years. Her visit, therefore, is seen as an opportunity to improve bilateral relations with an eye towards setting future agendas.
“As Cambodia will have the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN next year, the establishment of better relations between the US and Cambodia today is really about the US trying to shape the ASEAN agenda to include issues they’d like raised when Cambodia takes the ASEAN chair,” Phea said.