The Kingdom of Cambodia has begun its role as the 2022 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN serves as an intergovernmental organization for ten nations throughout Southeast Asia, and links them economically, politically, and culturally to one another. The chair, a rotating position appointed for one calendar year , holds the responsibility of leading all summits held that year, as well as ministerial bodies, councils, and committees that surround the ASEAN apparatus. In serving this role, Cambodia has an opportunity to highlight and bring attention to key issues not only in the region – with Myanmar’s military coup d’état and the hostility shown toward ASEAN in working towards a peace plan a major concern – but also for the broader Indo-Pacific. In this position, the relationships the country holds with countries outside of ASEAN are of growing importance, and this applies to the United States. A new ambassador is in the position to pave the way for the improvement and growth of relations between the United States and Cambodia.
His Excellency Keo Chhea has been recently appointed as Ambassador of the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in the United States. He will be taking over the position from His Excellency Chum Sounry, who had served in the position since 2018. Ambassador-Designate Keo Chhea has served as the First Secretary to the Cambodian Embassies in India and Brunei Darussalam, as well as several positions for ASEAN specifically, and has planned for his time in the United States to be the “last leg” of his work. In an interview conducted on February 17 with East-West Center in Washington Young Professional Ryan Roden, His Excellency Keo Chhea discussed his goals for the United States, Cambodian Americans, and for his time in office. Beyond consular services, such as visa application and procurement, the Ambassador had this to say on the work and efforts of the Royal Cambodian Embassy.
Q: What’s the most important part of your work?
A: The most important part of my work is to improve relationships. I have been posted throughout the world….this time is my last leg, and I want to improve relationships with the United States Government. I am going to do all my best to show that we are open, and we are friends so we can work with every country. As you may have read, there is a large geopolitical tension where we are… Because we sit in between the two rivalries, [of the United States and China] the push and pull is there. But what I’m trying to show is that we are no enemy to anyone. We want to have good trade, and good cultural relations.
Q: What is the next step of your work?
A: For Cambodia, we want to increase our trade relationships with the States, and the investments we have. The next step for me is how I can attract trade flow, and investments to and from Cambodia and the United States.
Q: What opportunities do you have for Cambodian-Americans, and Cambodians living in the United States?
A: Our job is to protect the well-being of the peoples of Cambodia. For Cambodian Americans, they are all still our brothers, and we still want to show them what our country has improved, and how it has moved. Many of them have been very far from home for a very long time, so it is important to be able to show them how their home has grown.
According to the US Census Bureau, there are approximately 258,000 Cambodian Americans in the United States. According to US Customs and Border Patrol, in 2019 there were approximately 7000 Cambodians who visited the United States.
Q: How do you feel about your relationship with the United States, and what do you want from this relationship?
A: As a group [ASEAN], we are a partner in economy and cooperation. For Cambodia, we have been cooperating in international affairs, and specifically in counter-terrorist measures. We have had joint-exercises held for many years, and this has stopped since before COVID-19. We hope we will be able to resume. Of course, there are many differences, but we are happy that we can always talk and discuss.
We wish to succeed in having better, and stable relations with the United States… We can see that countries in Southeast Asia have been developing economically, but because of COVID-19, the economy has dropped, and we have spent many of our resources on the vaccine and helping the poor. We hope that when we control the pandemic, we can move faster towards progress…As long as we are at peace and stable, then Cambodia is good. I hope to make the world understand that these are the two most valuable to us.”
Ryan Ahn Roden is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a first-year graduate student at American University's School of International Service.