US Pentagon chief visits Cambodia to boost ties with China ally

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a visit to Cambodia on Tuesday to improve relations with China’s close ally.

Over the past few years, the US has seen its relationship with Cambodia deteriorate, as China has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects under the leadership of former Cambodian leader Hun Sen.

One major concern for the US is the upgrading of a Cambodian naval base by China, which could potentially increase China’s influence in the Gulf of Thailand.

Austin, who was en route from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, arrived in Phnom Penh on Tuesday for a one-day visit with the aim of exploring ways to strengthen the defense relationship between the two countries. He shared his intentions on the social media platform X.

During his visit, Austin first met with Hun Sen, who recently stepped down after ruling Cambodia for almost four decades. He then held discussions with Prime Minister Hun Manet, who succeeded his father.
“After meeting Hun Manet, Austin posted on X that we discussed ways to strengthen the defense relationship between the United States and Cambodia in order to support regional peace and stability.”

Both Austin and Hun Manet graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Austin graduated in 1975, while Hun Manet graduated in 1999.

Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor of politics at Australia’s University of New South Wales, believes that the relationship between the US and Cambodia is at a turning point following Hun Manet’s appointment as prime minister.

Thayer told AFP that Austin’s visit to Cambodia indicates that both sides are willing to let go of some of their strict policies that have limited defense cooperation and engage in renewed dialogue to find common ground.

In a Facebook post, Hun Sen stated that he agrees with Austin’s desire to improve relations between the two countries, which have previously lacked trust in each other.

He added that their current relationship is not too bad and urged both sides to work together to rebuild mutual trust.
During Austin’s visit, Senate President Hun Sen suggested that Cambodia and the United States could strengthen their relationship by addressing their differences, increasing collaboration, and restarting conversations between defense officials.

This visit took place shortly after Cambodia and China concluded their largest annual military exercise, the Golden Dragon, which involved multiple Chinese warships and hundreds of military personnel.

In 2017, Cambodia cancelled a similar joint exercise with US forces.

In December, two Chinese warships made their first visit to the Ream Naval Base, which has raised concerns in Washington about potential Chinese military usage.

Despite these concerns, Cambodian officials have consistently denied that the base, located near the port city of Sihanoukville, is intended for the use of any foreign power.

Ou Virak, a Cambodian political analyst, mentioned that the relaunch of joint exercises might be a topic of discussion during Austin’s visit.
Additionally, the Secretary of Defense aims to send a clear message to Beijing, emphasizing the significance of this region and asserting that China will not have unrestricted control. The United States has previously expressed concerns about Cambodia’s human rights situation and its suppression of political dissidents and critics.