After Pentagon Chief’s Visit, Is There Hope for A Recovery in Cambodia-US Ties?

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After Pentagon Chief’s Visit, Is There Hope for A Recovery in Cambodia-US Ties?

Prime Minister Hun Manet’s accession last year has opened a window of opportunity for Phnom Penh and Washington.

After Pentagon Chief’s Visit, Is There Hope for A Recovery in Cambodia-US Ties?

Cambodian Senate President Hun Sen and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shake hands during a meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 4, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Samdech Hun Sen of Cambodia

On June 4, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made a short visit to Cambodia, his only stop in the region after attending the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. In Phnom Penh, Austin met with Prime Minister Hun Manet, Senate President Hun Sen, and Defense Minister Tea Seiha, discussing bilateral defense cooperation and regional issues.

Hun Sen, who was prime minister for 38 years until August 22 last year, said he held a talk with William Burns, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), on June 2 ahead of Austin’s arrival in Phnom Penh.

The fresh Cambodia-U.S. interactions gave a boost to bilateral defense ties and overall relations, which have been in decline since Cambodia canceled the Angkor Sentinel military exercise in 2017.

Central to the declining relations were differences between Phnom Penh and Washington over Chinese assistance to revamp Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, where U.S.-built facilities were razed to make way for changes at the base. Cambodia has repeatedly brushed off the concerns of Washington and its allies about the potential Chinese military role at the base after the renovation. An excursion to the base in mid-2021 by the U.S. defense attaché, meant to dispel differences, ended up in the war of words between the two sides over issues of transparency and sovereignty.

However, unlike recent U.S. summaries of its officials’ meetings with their Cambodian counterparts, the Pentagon’s readout of Austin’s visit made no mention of the Ream Naval Base. It was unclear – but highly likely – that the topic was among the main issues Austin discussed with senior Cambodian officials.

The readout also did not mention Cambodia’s democratic practice and human rights record. Though the omission would likely have frustrated keen Cambodian observers and rights groups, this represented an unusual gesture of U.S. humility and sensitivity in interacting with Cambodian political elites, who aim to remain in power for the foreseeable future.

All of this raises the possibility of a reversal in the slide in defense relations. In late 2021, the United States placed an arms embargo on Cambodia’s defense intelligence agency after sanctioning at least three current and former senior officers of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces with implicit links to China. The U.S. also nixed funding for Cambodian officers in U.S. professional military education (PME) programs as well.

According to the Pentagon, in his Phnom Penh meetings, Austin discussed the possibility of restoring access for Cambodian officers to U.S. PME programs.

Austin’s visit and the  director’s alleged conversation with Cambodian leadership could not be timelier, giving the recent developments in Phnom Penh-Beijing interactions.

Cambodia just concluded its annual Golden Dragon joint military exercise with China. The first Golden Dragon took place in late 2016, not long after the last annual Angkor Sentinel joint drill between the U.S. and Cambodian militaries, which Phnom Penh canceled shortly thereafter. Cambodia also recently named a southern ring road in Phnom Penh after Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

After Austin left Phnom Penh, China named its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, dubbed by some as a “wolf warrior” diplomat, as the next Chinese ambassador to Cambodia. His nomination highlights the Kingdom’s continued strategic value in the eyes of Beijing’s decision makers.

Wang’s presumptive U.S. counterpart Robert Forden has not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate two years after being nominated in mid-2022. With proficiencies in Mandarin and Vietnamese, Forden previously served as the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and as the deputy director of American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. diplomatic mission in Taipei.

The U.S. and Cambodia cannot afford to ignore each other. There are stronger urges for both sides to mend relations, starting with defense ties, in the coming years.

For Cambodia, the U.S. is an Indo-Pacific power, and intends to remain a force in the region as long as its strategic competition with China continues. In addition to its sheer global economic and military powers, the U.S. had an important leverage as the top destination of Cambodia’s exports.

For the U.S., Cambodia currently can be regarded as first among equals among ASEAN member states. From next month until July 2027, Cambodia will be the coordinating country for ASEAN-U.S. dialogue and relations. The ASEAN secretariat itself is now run by former Cambodian minister Kao Kim Hourn, who will serve as the bloc’s secretary-general until the end of 2027. Kao Kim Hourn just visited Washington to promote the ASEAN-U.S. Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Meanwhile, despite being a steady friend of China, Cambodia is seeking to establish a diversified, independent, and balanced foreign policy, seeking out good relations with all external partners, including Japan and the U.S., to balance its “iron-clad” friendship with China.

The U.S. supported Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022. President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Austin himself all showed up at ASEAN meetings in Cambodia. Cambodia broke ranks from its traditional friendship with Moscow to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Former Prime Minister Hun Sen made his first and historic visit to the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh in late 2022.

In addition, current Prime Minister Hun Manet leads a new team of younger and foreign-educated scions of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as cabinet ministers. The 46-year-old leader himself spent years studying in the U.S., including at Austin’s alma mater West Point. The U.S. sees this transition as an opportunity to make bonds, build trust, and restore ties.

After becoming the Senate president in April, Hun Sen has played a significant role in Cambodian diplomacy and foreign relations. The fact that Austin had a meeting with him, alongside Manet and Tea Seiha, highlighted Washington’s pragmatic approach, mindful of actual power structures in Phnom Penh.

The visit could be viewed by some as a concession by Washington, apparently leaving the ball in the court of Cambodian rulers to make the next move to improve relations.

It is in Cambodia’s interests to stabilize its ties with the United States, which can play a significant role in expanding its access to markets, companies, technologies, and capital from both the U.S. and its partners. Heavy dependence on China might help shore up short-term regime security, but a balanced foreign policy and economic diversification will better serve Cambodia’s long-term national interests.

Phnom Penh expects Washington to accept the current status quo in the domestic political landscape as the new normal and eventually a fait accompli. The CPP’s priority in maintaining its political authority has contributed to close relationships with China in recent years. For the CPP leadership’s preference, the leading priorities for the Cambodia-U.S. agenda should concentrate on economic and geopolitical interests, not human rights.

However, it should also leave some room for compromise with local political actors to a degree that both will not threaten CPP powers and will encourage goodwill friendship with the United States. Cambodia will also seek to improve the quality of its legal system to fight corruption and combat crimes, especially cyber-scam operations.

Austin’s visit could be a good sign and even a breakthrough in bilateral relations. However, it will be premature to assume that improvement is guaranteed.