Amid China’s Naval Base Concerns, US Defense Secretary Makes 2nd Visit To Cambodia To Boost Military Ties

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Cambodia on June 4 for a crucial visit aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the country. 

The visit comes amid rising concerns in Washington over Beijing’s growing presence at the Ream Naval Base, a strategically located facility on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand in Sihanoukville province.

Austin’s visit to Cambodia is his second as Secretary of Defense. However, it is particularly significant since this is the first time a U.S. defense chief has engaged in a direct bilateral meeting with his Cambodian counterpart, Defense Minister Tea Seiha.

Austin emphasized the strategic importance of his visit with a post on social media platform X, where he also confirmed his arrival in Phnom Penh.

During his stay, Austin met with former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is now president of Cambodia’s Senate after ceding power to his son, Prime Minister Hun Manet.

He also discussed strategies to enhance defense relations between the United States and Cambodia to promote regional peace and stability with Prime Minister Hun Manet, highlighting their shared background as West Point graduates.

A US defense official expressed optimism that Prime Minister Hun Manet, who studied at West Point, the US military academy, and New York University, might be more inclined to align with Washington than his father.

The official highlighted the pragmatic nature of Austin’s visit, noting that it was not about securing immediate significant deliverables.

“We’re very clear-eyed about some of the challenges that we’ve had on both sides between the United States and Cambodia in the past,” the official said. “I think we’ll be very direct and articulate about how we see US interests.”

Washington hopes the rise of a new generation of Cambodian leaders, including Hun Manet, will foster closer cooperation with the US.

This sentiment was reflected in a Pentagon readout following Austin’s meetings, which stated that the discussions covered opportunities to strengthen the US-Cambodia bilateral defense relationship in support of regional peace and security.

Key topics included 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 professional military education programs.

Growing Concerns Over Beijing’s Influence 

US officials are alarmed by China’s development of the Ream Naval Base, fearing it could become a new outpost for Beijing near the contentious South China Sea, most of which is claimed by China.

Before the onset of a China-funded upgrade in June 2022, Ream had been a hub for joint naval training and exercises between the United States and Cambodia. However, in a symbolic shift, Cambodia demolished a US-built facility at the base in October 2020.

The alarm bells rang louder for US officials last month when China dispatched two warships on a tour to Cambodia and East Timor, extending until mid-June. Since December 2023, two Chinese warships, likely corvettes or frigates, have been stationed at Ream, further exacerbating US concerns.

However, Cambodian officials have consistently denied allegations that the facility would be utilized by China as a naval base, citing the country’s constitution, which prohibits foreign military bases on its soil.

Chinese authorities echo this sentiment, describing the base as an “aid project” aimed at bolstering Cambodia’s naval capabilities and dismissing alternative assertions as “hype” with “ulterior motives.”

China naval base in Cambodia
File Image: Naval base in Cambodia

China has been strengthening its relationship with Cambodia, marked by significant investments and high-level state and military interactions.

As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has extended substantial infrastructural support to Cambodia. These investments, totaling billions of dollars, have facilitated the development of crucial infrastructure, including an extensive network of highways and bridges.

For instance, in a recent development, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet announced plans to commence construction in August on a Chinese-backed $1.7 billion canal project.

The project has sparked tensions with neighboring Vietnam amid fears of potential use by Chinese warships. Yet, Cambodia has vehemently denied these allegations, labeling them as baseless.

Additionally, military cooperation between Cambodia and China has been on an upward trajectory, evident in the recent conclusion of their largest annual military exercise, the Golden Dragon Exercises, which involved several Chinese warships and hundreds of military personnel.