BANGKOK (AP) — Britain's top diplomat met Wednesday with his Cambodian counterpart as he pushed for closer economic relations to Southeast Asia, part of the U.K.'s new emphasis on the region.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab met with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn in Phnom Penh in what his office said was the first visit by a British foreign secretary to Cambodia since the British Embassy was reopened 30 years ago.
Cambodia is to take over the rotating annual chairmanship next year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and Raab's office said he would make the case for Britain to attain “dialogue partnership” with the 10-nation bloc, the closest relationship for non-member countries.
“Here to boost trade, support Cambodia’s energy transition, expand UK ASEAN cooperation — and as a force for good in the Indo-Pacific,” Raab tweeted ahead of his meetings.
Following the meeting, Cambodia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the country was “strongly supportive” of Britain's aspirations for dialogue partnership, taking “into consideration its already very active engagement with ASEAN.”
Britain is currently pursuing a “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific region that was recommended by a recent British government review of defense and foreign policy in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage.
Beyond trade, Britain earlier this year dispatched a strike group led by the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth on a 28-week deployment to Asia.
As Raab met with officials, human rights observers noted that Cambodia has recently arrested and imprisoned environmental activists and urged the foreign secretary to call for their release, as well as some 70 other political prisoners.
“Foreign Secretary Raab’s visit comes in the midst of a human rights crisis in Cambodia, and both his talking points and public pronouncements need to reflect that," said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director.
“The U.K. should also ensure any future trade preferences granted to Cambodia be firmly based on improvements in civil and political rights," he said.
Following his meeting with Prak Sokhonn, Raab tweeted that the two had talked about “our shared priorities such as trade, human rights & #Myanmar,” but did not elaborate.
Raab also met with Environment Minister Say Sam Al. Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said in a tweet that the two talked about “joint priorities” including human rights, trade, COVID-19 and Myanmar. He did not provide further details.
The Foreign Ministry did not comment on the issue of human rights.
Raab started his three-country trip in Vietnam and is to head to Singapore after his visit to Cambodia.
It is his fifth visit to Southeast Asia as foreign secretary.