US Defense Secretary Visit: Hun Sen Stresses Renewed Dialogue Will Warm Up Defense Relations

This handout photo taken and released by the Cambodia Senate on June 4, 2024 shows US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) listening as Cambodia's Senate President Hun Sen (R) speaks during a meeting in Phnom Penh. Photo by Kok Ky / Cambodia Senate / AFP

PHNOM PENH – Senate President Hun Sen said that he and visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin agreed that the two countries should start a new defense dialogue to build mutual trust as military cooperation and trust have deteriorated over time.

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 up with several Cambodian officials. 

The defense secretary held bilateral talks with Senate President Hun Sen, Prime Minister Hun Manet, and his counterpart Defense Minister Tea Seiha.

Following their meeting, Hun Manet posted on his Telegram channel that he had asked his defense minister to resume defense cooperation between the two countries, particularly in areas such as exchanges between military schools and the holding of joint military exercises between the U.S. and Cambodian armies.

Austin said the U.S. will allow Cambodian students to study at Westpoint – from which Hun Manet graduated – and would exchange military matters with Phnom Penh, as well as participate in joint disaster relief operations and provide mine clearance training. 

He said that a strengthened defense dialogue would “support regional peace and stability,” according to a post on X (ex-Twitter).

“We had substantive conversations about ways to strengthen U.S.-Cambodian defense ties, and I’m looking forward to further dialogue,” he added in another post from the tarmac, while he was leaving Cambodia. 

Senate President Hun Sen said in a post on his Facebook Page that he and Austin agreed to continue the dialogue initiated today to find a new way to deepen and warm up future relations between Cambodia and the U.S.

He added that the two countries “will work together, [with the support of] the royal government of Cambodia to improve relations between the two countries.”

Hun Sen said the meeting was an opportunity for the two countries to change their attitudes after an era of mistrust and lack of mutual trust emerged. 

Washington sees Cambodia as a closer ally to China after it started military drills with the People’s Liberation Army in 2016. Drills between Cambodia and the U.S. have been suspended since 2017 and military relations between the two countries were deemed “not very good” by a U.S. defense official earlier this year.

“It is necessary to find ways to build more trust,” Hun Sen said. “Another shortcoming is the lack of information and miscalculation which causes misunderstanding between the two sides because we do not exchange information and do not talk.”

Referring to the growing U.S.-China rivalry, Hun Sen told Austin not to place Cambodia in its geopolitical battle and urged him not to use Cambodia as a place to compete with one another.

“What we have cooperated in the past, the dialogue between the two ministries of defense, other dialogues, the joint [military] exercises must continue,” he said.

At press time, no official statements have been released from Austin’s meetings with Defense Minister Tea Seiha.

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