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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visits Cambodia as US concerns grow over China’s influence

<i>Stringer/Pool/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin listens as Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet speaks during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on June 4.
Stringer/Pool/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin listens as Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet speaks during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on June 4.

By Natasha Bertrand, CNN

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) — US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Cambodia on Tuesday to meet with the country’s prime minister and defense minister, as Washington becomes increasingly concerned that Phnom Penh may grant China’s military exclusive access to a key naval base.

Austin’s trip to the Cambodian capital marks his second visit to the Southeast Asian country as Secretary of Defense but is the first time a United States defense chief has traveled to Cambodia specifically to hold a bilateral meeting with his counterpart, Defense Minister Tea Seiha.

The outreach reflects the US’ desire to forge a better relationship with Cambodia, defense officials said, particularly as Beijing’s influence over the country has only continued to grow in recent years.

“We believe there is potentially an opportunity, with leadership transition in Cambodia, for us to sit down and talk about how our relationship might have a more positive and optimistic path in the future,” a senior defense official told reporters, referring to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, who took office last year following his father Hun Sen’s nearly four-decade rule. “This isn’t a visit that is about significant deliverables and achievements.”

Austin did express the US’ concerns, however, about China’s funding of and presence at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, officials said. In December, China docked two warships at the base, which is in a highly strategic position close to the South China Sea.

Cambodian officials have repeatedly denied the facility would be used by China as a naval base, insisting the project is in line with Cambodia’s constitution, which bars foreign military bases on its territory. Chinese officials, meanwhile, have described the base as an “aid project” to strengthen Cambodia’s navy and called assertions otherwise “hype” with “ulterior motives.”

Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all of the 1.3-million-square-mile South China Sea, a characterization the US and many of its Indo-Pacific allies reject. Chinese vessels and aircraft have been widely documented harassing others operating in the area, including American ships and planes.

The US has been particularly alarmed in recent weeks by China’s attacks on Philippine vessels in the South China Sea using powerful water cannons. China also carried out large-scale military drills around the self-governing island of Taiwan last week as “punishment” for its inauguration of a new president, who is openly loathed by Beijing for championing the island’s sovereignty.

The behavior underscores why the US is worried about the possibility that China could establish a new military outpost so close to the key waterway.

“There are no doubts about where our concerns are,” a Pentagon spokesperson said following Austin’s meetings, when asked about Ream. “Meeting face-to-face gives us a chance not only to speak clearly about our concerns, but to talk about how we might work together in the future to strengthen our relationship. And we don’t ask any country to choose between partners.”

But as China and Cambodia have reaffirmed their military cooperation, relations between Washington and Phnom Penh have grown increasingly strained.

Cambodia canceled military exercises with the US in 2017 and demolished a US-built facility at Ream in 2020, as the US has repeatedly condemned the country’s poor human rights record and democratic backsliding. Last year, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Cambodian individuals in response to Cambodia’s election, which the State Department characterized as “neither free nor fair.”

On Tuesday, however, Austin met with former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who now serves as president of Cambodia’s Senate after transferring power to his son, a military general. Defense officials are particularly hopeful that Austin can forge a relationship with Prime Minister Hun Manet, who, like Austin, attended the US Military Academy at West Point and is seen as more westernized than his father.

In a readout following Austin’s meetings, the Pentagon said the “officials discussed opportunities to strengthen the US-Cambodia bilateral defense relationship in support of regional peace and security, including through the resumption of military training exchanges on disaster assistance and United Nations Peacekeeping, training and exchanges on de-mining and unexploded ordnance clearance, and Cambodia’s access to US PME [professional military education] programs. They also welcomed continued discussions about these issues between their respective defense establishments.”

Austin’s visit to Phnom Penh capped a five-day trip to Asia, where he attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and warned of China’s “coercive” activities in the region while working to deepen the US’ relationships with key Asian leaders.

In a meeting with China’s Defense Minister Dong Jun last week, their first face-to-face, Austin said the US wants to keep military-to-military channels open with the Chinese to avoid misunderstandings and escalation.

In a combative speech later on, Dong appeared to agree with that, but he also slammed “external interfering forces” for selling arms and having “illegal official contacts” with Taiwan — a thinly veiled reference to the US, which maintains close yet unofficial ties with the island democracy. In the same remarks, however, Dong said Beijing “never acts from the so-called position of strength.”

A senior US official told CNN that the speech was “at complete odds with the reality” of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s “coercive activity across the region.”

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