Date of Submission

Spring 2023

Academic Program

Global and International Studies

Project Advisor 1

Frederic C. Hof

Abstract/Artist's Statement

This paper seeks to explore the extent to which US-Cambodia antiquities repatriations could be used to help thwart Chinese influence in Cambodia. Cultural objects, stone and bronze sculptures of gods and ancestors created throughout Ancient Cambodia, hold significant meaning for local ritualistic practices and worship. After the arrival of the French in the 19th century, these materials were extracted from temples and sold on the international art market to prominent museums and collectors. The looting of antiquities has survived to this day, but with the help of US-Cambodian cooperation, many of these extracted materials are on their way home. The paper dives into the geopolitics behind these repatriations. China, a “strategic competitor” to the US, threatens American interests in the South China Sea, relying on its ally, Cambodia, to prevent ASEAN resistance and using the country as a possible naval base. At the same time, Cambodia shows signs that it is willing to adopt a more neutral foreign policy. The paper argues that the returns present an unprecedented opportunity to bolster American soft power in Cambodia, to help rebuild ties after recent turbulent relations in a non-China-related matter. The paper explains the connection between antiquities repatriations and soft power in the form of restitution and how returns appeal to both the Cambodian general public and government alike. Finally, the paper proposes policies to aid the effectiveness of such American soft power: extending the Cultural Property Memorandum of Understanding, pushing Thailand to adopt the 1970 UNESCO Resolution on Cultural Property, maintaining interagency cooperation and funding, educational exchange, and establishing museum capacity building and research initiatives.

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Open Access

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