US Defense Secretary’s Trip a Chance for Better Relations

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh on Nov. 22 during the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Siem Reap province. Photo: Tea Banh Facebook

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III will make his second visit to Cambodia in June, following his first visit for the ASEAN Defense Minister's Meeting-Plus in 2022. A visit of a US Secretary is rare and he is expected to meet senior officials.



The visit is in the context of enhancing relations between the US and Cambodia, under a new government led by PM Hun Manet since August 2023. 



In the past nine months, there have been many high-level engagements between Phnom Penh and Washington, particularly visits of senior officials from the US to Cambodia. During these engagements, both sides expressed commitment to work together to enhance relations despite some disagreements.   



With Austin’s visit, Phnom Penh will have important opportunities to enhance relations with the US by clearing doubts that Washington and its allies have about Cambodia, and strengthening defense cooperation between the US and Cambodia. 



The first opportunity of the visit is for Cambodia to explain and calm US’ concerns that Ream Naval Base will be controlled by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). Cambodia has consistently denied this accusation. The dominant narrative of discussing the status of Ream Naval Base has been viewed through the lens of US-China rivalry in the context of a belief that Cambodia is over-reliant on China. 



Secretary Austin’s second visit is widely seen from a broad strategic sense as a US attempt to counter China’s influence. In response, Cambodian leaders since the then prime minister Hun Sen until the Hun Manet government have rebutted the accusation.



They say Cambodia has no reason to allow the Chinese PLA in the country. This is because the Kingdom is not at war with any country and its Constitution forbids any foreign military presence in its territory. 



In March 2023, when he was prime minister, Hun Sen said. “Cambodia has the right to expand the capabilities of its naval forces. The base was previously just 2.7m deep, and needed to be dredged. This is hardly a threat to any other nation, let alone a superpower,”. 



Although these arguments seem reasonable from the point of view of Cambodia, it is quite unsure that the US is wholly receptive of these explanations. That is why the US concerns remain, and such concerns have been communicated frequently by US officials to the Cambodian government. 



Given the changing mood between Phnom Penh and Washington towards improving relations, it is important that Cambodia continues to explain to the US Cambodia’s exclusive ownership of Ream Naval Base, and that Cambodia welcomes all countries to use the bases if requested. 



One of the ways is through constructive on-ground explanation. While adhering to its own national sovereignty, but also wanting to show goodwill to the US in line of the Kingdom’s established policy, Cambodia can offer high-level visits of US officials to the base, and assure that once completed, the base will be open to all countries including the US. 



Moreover, if feasible, and if requested by the US side and accepted by the Cambodia side, the Kingdom can also offer a quick visit of Secretary Austin to the base during his visit.



These efforts would help enhance trust that Cambodia is transparent with the project, and would demonstrate goodwill from Cambodia to the US. These actions would send a strong political message that Cambodia attaches importance to improving relations with Washington. 



The second opportunity is that Cambodia can re-engage with the US military. Cambodia-US defense cooperation remains limited. Cooperation has faced setbacks since 2017 when Cambodia-US joint military exercises were called off. Moreover, during the peak of the US concerns of the Chinese PLA presence in the Ream base, starting since the middle to 2019, and the USs arms embargo in Cambodia in 2021, the then Premier Hun Sen ordered that all the US weapons in Cambodia be destroyed. 



Now, with some momentum in place of improving relations between Cambodia and the US, Phnom Penh can find a way to re-engage with the US, particularly in defense cooperation.  



The US is known to have the most capable and well-trained military personnel and the most advanced weaponry in the world. Therefore, Cambodia can discuss the possibility of resuming Cambodia-US military drills including the Angkor Sentinel



By doing so, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces would benefit from strengthening its humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) capabilities. 



Cambodia can also discuss the possible lifting of the arms embargo with the US. Although Cambodia is not buying US weapons at any moment, having the US lift the embargo gives a positive political sign that the cooperation between the two is improving.



There are important benefits for Cambodia by re-engaging with the US in the defense sphere beyond the improvement of Cambodia-US relations. 



The US, despite its questionable positions on some global issues, is still regarded as an important champion of the rule-based international order and has many security alliances, for example, NATO, AUKUS and QUAD. Therefore, having good relations with the US means paving bigger ways for Cambodia to also have further substantive relations with US allies. 



Cambodia needs the US to strengthen its military capability, not to counter any country, particularly China with which the Kingdom, like the rest of Southeast Asian countries, appreciates having important relations. Enhancing defense cooperation is also important in improving the overall relations between Phnom Penh and Washington. 



The governments of Cambodia and the US should be applauded for trying to improve relations. This depends heavily on both sides’ political willingness, based on their national interests. This positive momentum is vital. During Austin’s visit, Cambodia has crucial opportunities to further enhance relations with the US.

 



Khan Menghok is a research associate at the Cambodian Center for Regional Studies. 


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