US Defense Secretary Austin to Visit Cambodia Next Week

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US Defense Secretary Austin to Visit Cambodia Next Week

Lloyd Austin’s visit is a sign that Washington is seeking to re-engage the new look leadership in Phnom Penh, in a bid to draw the country out of China’s orbit.

US Defense Secretary Austin to Visit Cambodia Next Week

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin administers the oath of enlistment to new U.S. soldiers at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, May 11, 2024.

Credit: X/Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Cambodia early next month in a bid to engage the country’s new-look leadership, amid concerns about its heavy reliance on China.

In a statement on Friday, the Defense Department said that Austin will travel to Phnom Penh on June 4 after attending the Shangri-La Dialogue defense forum in Singapore, where he will meet “with other counterparts from across the Indo-Pacific region,” and hold his first meeting with Dong Jun, the Chinese defense minister.

The Defense Department did not offer much detail about Austin’s visit to Cambodia, except that he would meet with “senior officials.” The Financial Times, quoting three U.S. officials, said that Austin will meet Prime Minister Hun Manet, son of the former leader Hun Sen, who took over from his father last August.

Austin’s trip is likely intended to engage with the new Cambodian government after a decade that has seen U.S.-Cambodia relations drop to their lowest point in years. Much of the U.S. concern has focused on Cambodia’s intimate relations with China, particularly the Chinese role in the refurbishment of the Ream Naval Base in the south of the country. Many in Washington believe that China is building a permanent naval base at Ream, which has eclipsed the deterioration of Cambodian democracy to become the key sticking-point in bilateral relations.

Cambodian officials have repeatedly denied that the facility is a Chinese base, arguing that its constitution prevents it from allowing any permanent foreign military presence on its territory, and that all foreign navies will be welcome at the base. U.S. fears appeared to be confirmed by the fact that two Chinese warships have been docked at the base since December, though Phnom Penh says that they are there for the Golden Dragon military exercises, which will end later this week.

Austin’s visit suggests that the U.S. is adopting a new and more realistic policy toward Cambodia, recognizing that the country’s intimate proximity to China is in some senses a by-product of Washington’s heavy emphasis on democratic and human rights issues since the end of the Cold War. During this time, China has more or less come to substitute for the development assistance of the democratic West, minus the conditionalities regarding human rights and good governance.

The entry into office of Hun Manet, who graduated from the West Point military academy in 1999, offers a logical opportunity for a reset in U.S.-Cambodia relations. While the jury is out on whether Manet is any more of a liberal than his father, he does not appear to harbor the prickliness and resentment that colored Hun Sen’s perceptions of the U.S. and other Western countries.

As one U.S. official put it to the FT, “We remain clear-eyed about some of our concerns in Cambodia, but at the same time we see the arrival of the new leadership allowing us to explore new opportunities.”

In a thread on X yesterday, Chansambath Bong, a Cambodian PhD scholar at the Australian National University, argued that the U.S. had little chance of coaxing Cambodia away from China, but that there were ways that it could help arrest the downward trajectory in relations.

Chansambath said the U.S. “needs to acknowledge that its megaphone approach toward the Ream issue over the last 3-4 years has only exacerbated distrust” among the Cambodian leadership. The U.S. should instead “push for port calls by USN vessels at Ream to rebuild trust and explore ways forward in maritime security cooperation… to challenge [Cambodia] to stick to its own words that the base is not exclusive to [China].”