This weekend, United States President Joe Biden will meet and hold bilateral talks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( Asean ). Biden, unlike China’s Premier Li Keqiang, is not expected to come to the Southeast Asian nation bearing gifts or other tangible deliverables. Li, China’s representative at the regional summit, on Wednesday witnessed the inking of some 18 bilateral deals with Hun Sen. In contrast, Biden’s meeting with Hun Sen – the first between the Cambodian leader and an American president in a decade – is expected to be frosty if recent developments are anything to go by. Case in point, during an August meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Cambodia to be fully transparent about Chinese military activities at its Ream Naval Base , warning that “an exclusive presence would risk damaging Cambodia’s sovereignty, regional security, and Asean unity”. US can criticise Cambodia all it wants, but don’t expect Phnom Penh’s help Blinken also pressed Hun Sen to free all activists held on politically motivated charges and create more democratic space ahead of next year’s national elections. It did not help that late last month Hun Sen threatened to dissolve the opposition Candlelight Party and forced local officials to publicly condemn exiled politician Sam Rainsy – the strongman leader’s arch-rival. Rights groups say some 50 political prisoners are currently detained in Cambodia, including Theary Seng, a veteran Cambodian-American lawyer and long-time critic of the Hun Sen government. Imprisoned in a mass trial of opposition supporters in June, she is serving a six-year sentence and is into a weeklong hunger strike timed to coincide with the Asean Summit. These developments do not bode well for an amicable meeting with positive outcomes between Hun Sen and Biden. Contrast that with Wednesday’s meeting with Li. Apart from announcing a US$27.6 million development assistance package for Cambodia, Li also oversaw the signing of agreements that ranged from infrastructure plans and agricultural trade to education, health and climate response projects. Li also pledged to increase the number of Cambodian students studying in China, continue supporting the restoration of Cambodia’s cultural heritage, as well as assist in demining activities and help organise next year’s Southeast Asian Games in Phnom Penh. But the icing on the cake was Li presiding over the official inauguration of a 190km expressway connecting Phnom Penh with the country’s main port at Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. The US$2 billion expressway was built as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative , Beijing’s global development and connectivity project involving large-scale infrastructure and transport projects. As this week’s events have shown, there is little doubt that Cambodia has fallen almost irreversibly into China’s orbit and the US has chosen not to counter. Instead, it may have taken steps in the opposite direction. If the Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act introduced this year is eventually passed in the US, more sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation can be expected, which will surely further strain relations. These include blocking the assets of those sanctioned, unless Cambodia “makes meaningful progress” toward ending government efforts to undermine democracy and ending human rights violations. While the Biden administration has pledged to engage Asean as a whole, it appears that Washington has no intention of shoring up relations with a member state that has emerged as China’s closest ally in Southeast Asia. This might well be intentional, as it allows the US latitude to play the democracy card in a region where its value has shown signs of erosion in recent years. In a bid to counter China and win support in the region, Washington has chosen to use the card sparingly and even strategically, such as in the case of Vietnam which it has become closer to in recent years. With Vietnam keeping a wary eye on forging closer ties with China due to historical animosity and disputes in the South China Sea , it is much harder to pick on Hanoi’s human rights record. It is much easier to do so with a country that the US has little or no hope – at least in the immediate future – of wrenching from China’s orbit.