Amid US flirtation, Cambodia stresses ‘steel’ ties to China

Days before US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit, Hun Manet and Hun Sen met with China’s ambassador.
By RFA Khmer and Alex Willemyns
Amid US flirtation, Cambodia stresses ‘steel’ ties to China People wave flags of Cambodia (R) and China (L) as Chinese training ship Qijiguang prepares to dock with a banner reading "Bring peace and friendship to meet good friends" during a welcome ceremony at the Sihanoukville port in Preah Sihanouk province, Cambodia, May 19, 2024.

Just days before a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Cambodian Senate President Hun Sen said Tuesday his son’s new government will maintain Phnom Penh’s “steel” ties to Beijing. 

After attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this week, where he will hold talks with Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun, Austin will on Saturday travel to Phnom Penh, where he is set to meet with Prime Minister Hun Manet, who succeeded his father in office in August.

The 46-year-old Hun Manet graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1999 and received a master’s in economics from New York University in 2002, leading some pundits to predict he might be more open than his father to cordial ties with the United States.

But in a post to Facebook on Tuesday, Hun Sen called the close relations to China that he fostered over the last decade of his 38 years in office “a historic long-term relationship that cannot be broken.”

In this photo released by Agence Kampuchea Press (AKP), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, holds talk with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, right, in Peace Palace, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, April 22, 2024. (AKP via AP)

He said he and Hun Manet had reiterated as much to China’s outgoing ambassador to Phnom Penh, Wang Wentian, in a meeting Tuesday, and that the ambassador had likened their relationship to “steel.”

“Although there was a reshuffle of the cabinet, there’s been no change in the policy about Cambodia-China relations, which is to maintain the Cambodia-China friendship eternally,” Hun Sen wrote in the post.

“The relationship has earned the two countries political trust,” the former premier added. “Chinese aid not only helps social development but also strengthens Cambodia’s political independence.” 

Lloyd Austin

A statement released by the Pentagon on Friday said that Austin hopes to build on meetings he had with senior Cambodian officials when he last visited Phnom Penh for a summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers in November 2022.

But it also seems likely Austin, who himself graduated from West Point in 1975, will attempt to sway Hun Manet’s government from the close embrace of Beijing to instead consider a more neutral stance.

Speaking to the Financial Times over the weekend, an anonymous U.S. official said the defense secretary would see what’s possible. 

“We remain clear-eyed about some of our concerns in Cambodia, but at the same time we see the arrival of the new leadership allowing us to explore new opportunities,” the official told the newspaper.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, center, Vietnam Minister of Defense Phan Van Giang, right, and Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, left, listen to a speech by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, during the 9th ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to make an official visit to Cambodia, one of China's closest allies in Southeast Asia, after holding talks with his Chinese counterpart at an annual security conference in Singapore, officials said in a statement issued Friday, May 24, 2024. (Heng Sinith/AP)

The United States has criticized a Chinese-led expansion of the Ream naval base near the port city of Sihanoukville, which Washington says has the appearance of a permanent Chinese naval base and would allow Beijing to project power across the Gulf of Thailand.

Phnom Penh denies China is building a permanent base, which would violate Cambodia’s 1993 Constitution, but repeated naval drills by the countries’ navies has done little to dissuade its critics.

Em Sovannara, a Cambodian political commentator, said that Cambodia benefited from its ties to China but still had a closer trading relationship with the United States, to which many of the country’s garment exports go.

He said that was reason enough for an official stance of neutrality.

“We benefit from the U.S. markets – we profit from the United States,” he said. “We have more economic benefit from the West, so Cambodia should be neutral for the sake of development.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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