POLITICS

US defense secretary meets Cambodian officials to push for stronger ties with Chinese ally

Jun 4, 2024, 1:34 AM

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Cambodian officials on Tuesday to discuss a possible resumption of joint military exercises, suggesting the beginning of a thaw in relations between the countries that have been strained over Cambodia’s growing closeness with China.

Austin met with Defense Minister Tea Seiha, Prime Minister Hun Manet and Senate President Hun Sen, the Pentagon said. Hun Sen, the former prime minister, is Hun Manet’s father.

The officials discussed ways to strengthen defense ties in support of regional peace and security, including through a resumption of military training exchanges, de-mining training, and Cambodian participation in U.S. military education programs, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement.

Hun Manet said on Telegram that he and Austin discussed ways to resume cooperation, including Cambodian access to U.S. military education programs and joint military exercises between the countries.

Cambodia, which is China’s closest ally in Southeast Asia, halted joint military exercises with the U.S. in 2017.

U.S. relations with Cambodia have been frosty for years, in large part because of its close ties with China, and particularly China’s military presence at a Cambodian navy base in the Gulf of Thailand that has been upgraded with Beijing’s assistance. Washington has also been vocal about Cambodia’s human rights record, including continuing clampdowns on political dissidents and critics.

Cambodian officials deny that China will have any special basing privileges and say their country maintains a neutral defense posture.

Austin arrived from Singapore, where he attended the Shangri-La defense forum and held talks with his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Dong Jun, as the U.S. and China gradually work to repair lines of communications between their militaries that could be critical as tensions continue to rise between them in the Indo-Pacific region.

The visit was Austin’s first visit to Cambodia since Hun Manet became prime minister last year, succeeding his father Hun Sen, who held office for 38 years. The handover has led to speculation of a reset in U.S.-Cambodia relations, though so far Hun Manet has maintained his father’s policies.

Hun Manet was Cambodia’s army commander before becoming prime minister last August. Both Austin and he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — Austin in 1975 and Hun Manet in 1999, as Cambodia’s first cadet there.

Austin also met Tuesday with Cambodian alumni of U.S. military education programs.

From Cambodia, Austin will go to France to attend events commemorating the 80th anniversary of the World War II D-Day landing, the U.S. Defense Department said.

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