Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

US-Cambodia To Restore Ties, Joint Military Drills

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet (R) shakes hands with U.S Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2024. (AKP)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet (R) shakes hands with U.S Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2024. (AKP)

Cambodia and the US will restore relations, restart military exercise, and accept Cambodian military students to study at West Point, according to a Facebook post by senate president Hun Sen who met US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday morning.

On his Facebook page, Hun Sen said Austin confirmed this during his visit, bringing the message from the US that they “will work together with Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] and the Royal Government of Cambodia to restore and improve relations between the two countries”.

“The two countries can change [our] attitude to improve our relations, although we have different views on some issues. But our cooperation in many sectors [has been] fruitful and we can sit down to work together for fruitful results,” Hun Sen said, quoting Austin.

Austin has agreed to continue dialogues, notably on defense policy, to find a new path for the Cambodia-US relations in future.

He also mentioned that the US will reopen enrollment for Cambodians to study at the West Point military academy, participate in exchange programs in the joint military exercise as preparations for disaster relief, and continue training in demining landmines, Hun Sen said.

In 2021, the US canceled the scholarship for Cambodians to enroll in the West Point military on the basis that Cambodia had “lost its eligibility for the military academy program due to weak cooperation in several areas of traditional bilateral military engagement”.

Hun Sen responded by agreeing with the US Defense Secretary’s intention to enhance good relations.

“[I] consider the special relationship between our countries as not too bad [now] compared to the past. Previously, both sides lacked mutual trust, so we needed to find ways to build more trust. We have to manage different views, narrow differences, even if it is difficult,” Hun Sen wrote.

“Another issue was the lack of information, and misjudgment, which confused both parties [as there was] no exchange of information and discussion,” he continued.

Hun Sen called on the US government and other powerful nations not to pull Cambodia into its geopolitical conflict or “use it as a battlefield”.

He reiterated that Cambodia has implemented an independent policy based on the law which does not take sides, and considers all countries as friends.

Cambodian Senate president Hun Sen (R) shakes hands with U.S Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a meeting in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2024. ( AKP)

Following his meeting with Hun Sen, Austin met Prime Minister Hun Manet where they discussed strengthening relations and cooperation with Cambodia in various sectors, particularly in the defense sector.

“The US is ready to work closely with Cambodia to implement a mechanism to build better relations and cooperation,” Hun Manet wrote on Facebook page.

“The National Defense Minister and I also discussed mechanisms for re-cooperation [with the US] on some sectors as well as exchange of military students between our countries and joint military exercises with the US,” Hun Manet said.

In an email response to CamboJA News, US embassy public diplomacy officer Wesley Holzer said this was the first bilateral visit by a US Secretary of Defense. However, it is a second visit to Cambodia for Austin who attended the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus in Siem Reap in November 2022.

According to a statement read out by Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder, Austin discussed opportunities to strengthen bilateral defense relationships in support of regional peace and security with Cambodia. This would be via “the resumption of military training exchanges on disaster assistance and United Nations Peacekeeping, training and exchanges on demining and unexploded ordnance clearance, and Cambodia’s access to US professional military education programs”.

Austin, who arrived in Cambodia after attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, is expected to meet with his counterparts in the Indo-Pacific region as well as Admiral Dong Jun, his Chinese counterpart.

He will conclude his trip in France, where he will mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, according to the U.S Defense Department.

Austin later tweeted on X that he met with Hun Manet, a fellow West Point graduate. “We discussed how the US and Cambodia can strengthen our defense relationship in support of regional peace and stability,” he wrote.

Separately, an interview by Cambodia-China Radio with National Defense Minister Tea Seiha was posted by the Chinese embassy in Cambodia on May 28. In the interview, he thanked the Chinese government for the opportunity where both armies exchanged skills and acquired new skills and modernized weaponry in the recently concluded annual Golden Dragon military exercise.

“The [military] exercise was a demonstration of the relationship, especially showcasing the skills and experience of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army which was transferred to the Cambodian army to understand better and increase its operation levels,” Seiha said.

He added that Cambodia “warmly welcomed Chinese ships docked at Preah Sihanouk Autonomous Port” for the Golden Dragon military drill. 

In the four-minute video clip, he also raised the South China Sea dispute, where he claimed that China was also “trying to protect what belongs to China”. “There is nothing we can’t resolve if those countries try to meet and lay the problems on the table to discuss and find a solution,” Seiha said.

In recent years, Cambodia-US relations have somewhat weakened after Cambodia suspended a joint military drill with the US in 2017. This was further compounded by concerns arising from 2019 that the Ream naval base would grant China’s military exclusive access to a part of the base, situated on the Gulf of Thailand.

However, both Cambodia and China have repeatedly denied the US’ claims.

The Ream naval base previously featured US-funded installations, which were demolished in 2020. In 2022, the US Department of State urged Cambodia to be “fully transparent” about “present and future Chinese activities at the Ream naval base”.

Meanwhile, political analyst Meas Nee said the US was concerned about China’s influence in relation to the Ream naval base and the presence of the Chinese army.

“All these can affect the economy and diplomacy if the situation remains unclear on both sides. We say it’s not [Chinese army] but we have conducted military exercises with China, and we refused to do it with the US,” Nee said.

But, he said, the US is keen on keeping diplomatic relations with Cambodia for the sake of strengthening regional security and stability.

Government spokesperson Pen Bona declined to comment further, urging the reporter to refer to the government statement via social media.

National Defense Ministry spokesperson Chhum Socheat did not respond to questions.