By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 11:34 AM
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday called on Cambodia to maintain an independent foreign policy and avoid relying too much on China.
Clinton is on the second leg on a seven-country swing through Asia. The trip is designed to reinforce a central plank of foreign policy in the Obama administration: that the United States views Asia as key to the future and that the United States must act in this region to balance China's influence. President Obama also heads to Asia later this week for meetings in India, Indonesia and South Korea.
"You don't want to get too dependent on any one country," Clinton said Monday in response to a question about China's influence during a meeting with Cambodian students.
"There are important issues that Cambodia must raise with China," she continued, pointing to a string of Chinese dams on the upper Mekong River that risk lowering the flow of the river as it courses through Cambodia.
Clinton came to Cambodia from talks in Vietnam and China. Her trip to Vietnam marked the U.S. accession to the East Asian Summit - a group of 18 Asian nations that the United States joined as a way to balance China's heft.
Clinton has been to Vietnam twice in the past four months, and this is her sixth trip to Asia as secretary of state. Her visit to Cambodia marked the first time since Colin Powell came here in 2003 that a U.S. secretary of state has held meetings in this country.
U.S. officials acknowledge that countering China's growing influence here will not be easy. China is the top provider of aid to Cambodia, giving more than $200 million a year. It has built bridges, roads and power plants all over the country, and China also trains and supplies Cambodia's military.
One issue that divides the United States and Cambodia is the more than $400 million of debt Cambodia owes to Washington. The debt was incurred during the Lon Nol regime in the 1970s.
Clinton announced that Washington would send a team to resume talks with the Cambodian government over the issue.
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters that his country wanted the debt to be diverted into development assistance and education.
Another issue involves the international effort to bring to justice members of the Khmer Rouge regime, which is believed to be responsible for killing 1.5 million to 2 million people from 1976 to 1979. Cambodia has indicated that it wants the prosecutions to stop after four senior Khmer Rouge officials go to trial, perhaps next year.
Hor told reporters Monday that if the prosecutions were expanded to include lower-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, "it could jeopardize peace and stability." Clinton responded that her first priority was raising the $50 million needed to prosecute the existing cases against Nuon Chea, Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan.
The United States isn't the only country seeking to balance China's rise. Vietnam, which is worried about China's influence in Southeast Asia, announced Saturday that it was reopening its naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay to foreign navies. The United States used the bay as a naval base during the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union took over use of the facilities after Vietnam was united under a communist government in 1975.
Japan also moved this weekend to diversify its sources of rare earth minerals following China's decision to cut its exports of the minerals, which are critical in high-tech manufacturing. Over the weekend, Japan and Vietnam agreed to jointly mine and process the minerals in Vietnam. China began blocking the export of rare earths to Japan last month after a Chinese fishing vessel collided with two Japanese coast guard ships near the Senkakus Islands. China claims the islands as its own territory.
Chinese officials said recently that China, which accounts for 97 percent of the world's production of rare earths, was committed to responsibly exporting the minerals.