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The three of us recently traveled halfway across the world to better investigate US interests and economic avenues in a region that has been attracting a lot of news attention lately.
Meeting and collaborating with government and business leaders in Southeast Asia have confronted us with a harsh reality: US influence has been undermined in a part of the world we once stood ready to rule, and China has moved in to help to play an increasingly dominant role. That needs to change.
Southeast Asia is diverse. Nations range from highly developed Singapore to rapidly developing Cambodia to deeply troubled Myanmar. Laos and Vietnam have not shed the remnants of authoritarianism from their communist days, and Thailand has once again fallen under functioning military rule.
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While we enjoyed a productive visit to Singapore, our main focus was Cambodia. These are two very different countries that have given us a consistent message: China is outmaneuvering the United States in this region with investment, credit, trade and exchange. This is China’s backyard. It has natural advantages in terms of geography, history and culture and has been cultivating this region for many years.
Our first impression was the people of Cambodia – their warmth, sincerity and desire to advance on the world stage. The leaders of these countries told us they favor a stronger American presence, which they see as a necessary counterweight to China.
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You respect and admire the United States. They follow trends in the United States. They send their children to study in the USA. They like the way American companies do business. However, they also told us that they will accept investments and trades from anyone who offers them on favorable terms. Our allies in the region – including Japan, South Korea and Australia – invest and act there, but they cannot represent our interests.
The United States has many interests in this critical region, and they are not all economic. We want to promote greater freedom and openness, both in general and as a barrier against Chinese Marxist-Leninist influence. Vietnam and Laos have yet to shed their communist past.
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Cambodia is emerging as a new nation and is rapidly evolving. Over the past 30 years, she has rebuilt her society from the ground up after the heartless genocide of her people.
The United States must work long-term with these countries to develop and strengthen economic and political ties and promote shared values. Trade and investment open the door to greater influence and American democratic values, which will translate to greater freedom and prosperity for them.
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There are many opportunities for American businesses in Cambodia including construction, manufacturing, food processing and other ventures. We are equipped to meet Cambodia’s energy needs, particularly through cleaner generation through LNG and hydropower.
Cambodia wants to take its place among the advanced developing countries. More trade and investment will lead to prosperity and a greater opportunity to advance the kinds of freedoms that have underpinned our strongest alliances for decades.
We can take several steps to move along this path. First, we must reauthorize the import of a wide range of qualifying goods under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). This is critical to opening the US market to Asia Pacific countries. Cambodia needs better access to markets in the US, its second largest trading partner.
The US should quickly include Cambodia in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).
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This will tie it more closely to us and to our key allies and partners in developing Asia-Pacific countries. IPEF can be a starting point for the United States to re-enter the comprehensive and progressive transpacific partnership agreement that includes chapters on trade and market access with high standards.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has a moratorium on new trade deals and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) is a pipe dream unless the administration recognizes the role Congress plays in setting trade policy.
We have the means to make Southeast Asia an important partnership region. This will lead to the expansion and adoption of US values including the rule of law, human rights and economic advancement.
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Free and fair trade, if done well, can lift people out of poverty and bring economic benefits to all countries involved. The US can no longer afford to withdraw from the international scene.
A clear presence in the heart of the Indo-Pacific will ensure US interests are well positioned in the 21st century.
Republican Beth VanDuye represents Texas’ 24th congressional district in the US House of Representatives.
Republican Ron Estes represents Kansas’ 4th congressional district in the US House of Representatives.