Analysts See Reconciliation Chance in US Defense Chief Visit

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) listens as Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet (R) speaks during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2024. Photo by POOL / AFP

PHNOM PENH – Analysts see a new political approach from the US towards Cambodia after the first official visit of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

They say there is a move for a gentle diplomacy agenda to contain China’s growing power in Cambodia and the region.

Austin was in Phnom Penh on June 4 for a one-day official visit to cement defense relationships with Cambodia. 

He came from Singapore after he attended the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, a defense annual meeting focusing on the Asia-Pacific, and took the opportunity of the geographic proximity to meet Cambodian officials. 

He held talks with Senate President Hun Sen, Prime Minister Hun Manet, and his counterpart Defense Minister Tea Seiha, agreeing that the two countries should start a new defense dialogue to build mutual trust as military cooperation and trust have deteriorated.

Political commentator Ro Vannak suggested that the US was implementing gentle diplomacy, meaning it strived to engage with the new head of the government as Hun Manet used to study in the US. 

They think that the approach can strengthen the relationship concerning security matters in the region, where China seems to be expanding its influence. 

“So, this visit is the geopolitical agenda of the US to prevent China from becoming the superpower in the region,” he said. 

“I see that this is the soft and gentle strategy of the US to prevent Cambodia from getting too attached to China and contain China's power in Cambodia. So, the US has to work on security and military matter with Cambodia.”

Policy analyst at the Royal Academy of Cambodia Seun Sam said he was over the moon to see the US and Cambodia willing to talk again and find a way to deepen their relationship despite the past deteriorated relationship. 

“This is the right step for the Cambodian government to be closer to the US since the US is the only country that established diplomatic relations with Cambodia before any other countries in the region,” he said. 

“Cambodia and the US established diplomatic ties on July 11, 1950, before Cambodia gained independence from France. 

Seum Sam added that the US is a significant partner for Cambodia, serving as the main market and providing crucial technology. 

Closer relations with the US, therefore, can enhance Cambodia's social development and help maintain international relations, avoiding past foreign policy mistakes.

Military Cooperation Resumption: A Good Move

Military drills called “the Angkor Sentinel Exercise,” between Cambodia and the US have been suspended since 2017 and military relations between the two countries were deemed “not very good” by a US defense official earlier this year.

Prime Minister Hun Manet requested the resumption of defense cooperation between the two countries, specifically in military exchanges and joint exercises between the armies.

Meanwhile, Austin announced the US will grant Cambodian students Westpoint military academy education, exchange military matters with Phnom Penh, participate in joint disaster relief operations, and provide mine clearance training.

Ro Vannak said Cambodia resuming drills with the US was beneficial as it demonstrated its ability to conduct drills with other countries, restoring normalcy with US forces and clearing accusations of Cambodia favoring Chinese armies.

“This is a great policy choice to resume the normalcy between the US armies,” he said.

Seum Sam said the consideration is Cambodia’s smart move to maintain its global defense relationship. The US is the main market for Cambodia's products and maintaining good relations with countries like the US, Australia, South Korea, ASEAN members and China is crucial.

“I think this is great news to hear during the trip,” he said. “Cambodia is treated as a good ally of China although Cambodia has good relations with many countries around the world. At this time, any move to the US  and other countries in the world is a smart move of the Cambodian government.”

Ro Vannak sees that allowing students to go to West Point is to reconcile rifts in the relationships of both countries, adding that Cambodian cadets can gain international standard knowledge for development while the US can strengthen friendship. 

The US uses soft power to prevent China's influence, which it sees as a threat to regional security by using Cambodia as a base.

“For Cambodia, it's the successful foreign policy when the US softens its attitude and takes a gentle policy approach with Cambodia,” Vannak said.

Seun Sam said the US recognizes Cambodia's importance in ASEAN decision-making, as a Mekong country, and its geopolitical condition, requiring a concise approach for US foreign policy, despite its small geographical size.

“The opportunity for Cambodian students to study in the US in any field is always treated as a good chance because there are many things that Cambodia needs to learn from the US to upgrade its ability and to improve human resources in Cambodia,” he said.

Austin posted on X that “we had substantive conversations about ways to strengthen US-Cambodian defense ties and I’m looking forward to further dialogue.”

Senate President Hun Sen posted that he and Austin had agreed to continue dialogue to deepen and warm up future relations between Cambodia and the US.

This visit was an opportunity for the two countries to change their attitudes after an era of mistrust, he said.

However, he warned Austin not to involve Cambodia in the US-China geopolitical battle and not to use Cambodia as a competitive location.

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