Outgoing US Ambassador to Cambodia William A Heidt on Monday met with Secretary of State at the Ministry of National Defence General Neang Phat to discuss possible challenges and opportunities in rebuilding military cooperation between the nations.
The topics were raised during Heidt’s farewell visit to the Ministry of National Defence, according to a US Embassy Facebook post.
All military exercises with the US were suspended when the Ministry of National Defence “temporarily postponed” the annual Angkor Sentinel joint exercises in January last year, saying the Kingdom’s military “was busy with a drugs crackdown and preparations for election security”.
It then “postponed indefinitely” a US Navy Mobile Construction Battalion humanitarian programme in which the “Seabees” work with their Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) counterparts on community service projects across the Kingdom.
Meanwhile, in March last year, Cambodia and China held their first “Golden Dragon” joint military exercise.
The drills, which involved some 100 Chinese troops, were seen by many as yet another sign of Cambodia turning increasingly towards China.
“Chinese aid does not only contribute to the development of Cambodia’s economy, it also helps the strengthening of the Kingdom’s independence and sovereignty,” Minister of National Defence Tea Banh said at the closing of the Golden Dragon exercises.
As military cooperation between Cambodia and China increases, the US expressed concerns over a claim there was a Chinese naval base under construction in Koh Kong province.
Prime Minister Hun Sen responded by saying foreign military bases in the Kingdom are not allowed.
In response, Heidt said the concerns should be addressed transparently, according to a US Embassy statement on its Facebook page.
“The Ambassador acknowledged the government’s public statements that Cambodia would never allow a foreign military base on Cambodian soil and noted the importance of continued dialogue and transparency on this issue,” it said.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said “Cambodia spurns the American approach at its peril”.
“It is in Cambodia’s interest to renew this cooperation with the US to balance China’s increasing domination,” he said.
Emily Zeeberg, the US Embassy spokesperson, declined to comment on the matter.