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US Defense Secretary’s Trip a Chance for Better Relations

Phnom Penh: US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III will make his second visit to Cambodia in June, following his initial visit for the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus in 2022. Such visits are rare, and Austin is expected to engage with senior Cambodian officials.

The visit aims to strengthen relations between the US and Cambodia under the new government led by Prime Minister Hun Manet, who assumed office in August 2023. High-level engagements have increased over the past nine months, with both sides committed to enhancing bilateral ties despite some disagreements.

Austin’s visit presents Phnom Penh with significant opportunities to address Washington's concerns and reinforce defense cooperation. A key issue is the Ream Naval Base, amid allegations it might be used by the Chinese PLA. Cambodia has denied these accusations, asserting sole control over the base.

Cambodian leaders have emphasized that the Constitution forbids foreign military presence. In March 2023, then-Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that Cambodia's naval enhancements are purely defensive.

Despite reassurances, US concerns persist, highlighting the need for continued dialogue. Austin’s visit allows Cambodia to offer explanations and potentially arrange high-level visits to the Ream Naval Base to demonstrate transparency.

Another critical aspect is re-engaging with the US military. Defense cooperation has been limited since 2017, with setbacks including a US arms embargo in 2021. With renewed focus on improving relations, Cambodia can explore resuming military drills like Angkor Sentinel and discuss lifting the arms embargo, symbolizing improved ties.

Re-engaging with the US in defense offers broader benefits beyond bilateral ties. The US remains a key proponent of the rules-based international order with significant security alliances. Strengthening relations with the US could pave the way for deeper connections with its allies.

Improving defense cooperation is crucial for overall relations. Both governments should be commended for their efforts, which hinge on mutual political will and national interests. Austin’s visit represents a vital opportunity for Cambodia to enhance its relationship with the US.

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