US Pentagon chief visits Cambodia to boost ties with China ally

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Cambodia on June 4, 2024 in an effort to reset ties with the staunch China ally.

Washington’s relationship with the South-east Asian nation has been deteriorating for years, with China pouring in billions of dollars in infrastructure investments under Cambodia’s former leader Hun Sen.

The US has voiced concerns over a key Cambodian naval base that is being upgraded by Beijing, which it says could be used to boost the Asian giant’s influence in the Gulf of Thailand.

En route from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Mr Austin landed in Phnom Penh on June 4 for the one-day visit to “explore opportunities to deepen our bilateral defence relationship”, he wrote on social media platform X.

He first met Mr Hun Sen – who stepped down in August after a nearly four-decade rule over Cambodia – and is also meeting Prime Minister Hun Manet, who took over from his father.

Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry told reporters last week that Mr Austin’s visit would be “another good chance to advance ties and relations of the two countries”.

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

Dr Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales, said: “US-Cambodia relations are at an inflection point after Mr Hun Manet became prime minister.”

He told AFP that Mr Austin’s visit to Cambodia “signifies that the two sides are willing to jettison some of their rigid policies restricting defence cooperation and engage in renewed dialogue to seek common ground”.

Mr Austin’s visit comes just days after Cambodia and China wrapped up their largest annual military Golden Dragon exercises, involving several Chinese warships and hundreds of military personnel.

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

In December, two Chinese warships made a first visit to the Ream Naval Base that Washington fears is intended for Chinese military use.

Cambodian officials have repeatedly denied that the base, near the port city of Sihanoukville, is for use by any foreign power.

Cambodian political analyst Ou Virak told AFP that the relaunch of joint exercises might be a point of discussion during Mr Austin’s visit.

The Pentagon chief would also want to convey a message to Beijing, “saying this region is too important and China won’t have free rein”, he added.

Washington has in the past voiced criticism over Cambodia’s human rights record and crackdowns on political dissidents and critics.