Several analysts have highlighted their belief that next week’s official visit by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin represents a “good sign” for US-Cambodian relations. They suggested that while relations are improving, Austin’s visit is also an indication of the superpower’s growing focus on regional security.

“The visit by the US Secretary of Defense is a good sign for Cambodia-US relations. Bilateral relations between the two are improving under the seventh-mandate government,” said Thong Mengdavid, a lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Institute for International Studies.

He told The Post on May 28 that on the occasion of this visit, Cambodia and the US should focus on open and equal discussions, especially on the “issue of the Ream naval base and allegations of the presence of Chinese troops on Cambodian territory”.

Mengdavid suggested that the two nations should discuss the possibility of resuming the joint “Angkor Sentinel” military exercises, which were last held in 2016.

He explained that they would enable Cambodian defence personnel to gain knowledge, strategies, and tactics from the US military, noting that this could enable the Kingdom’s army to increase its capacity to fulfil its mission of maintaining national security, as well as globally, under the UN’s umbrella.

Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesman Chum Sounry said Austin will pay an official visit to Cambodia on June 4, adding that at the request of the US, Cambodia is facilitating meetings between Austin and the Kingdom’s leaders.

 “Bilateral relations between Cambodia and the United States have been enhanced in many areas. 

“The visit of the US Secretary of Defense will provide another great opportunity for the two countries to further promote relations and cooperation between the two countries,” he told reporters on May 27. 

He added that the visit will come as Cambodia prepares to take on the role of facilitator for the three-year ASEAN-US Dialogue from 2024 to 2027, which will commence shortly.

Austin’s visit to the Kingdom comes about a week after the conclusion of the twelve-day “Golden Dragon 2024” exercises between the Cambodian and Chinese militaries.

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy (CID), suggested Austin’s visit could be part of the US regional security agenda as he will have just attended the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the largest Asia-Pacific security dialogue forum.

 “I think this visit shows the growing US attention to regional security, especially the growing influence of China in the region as a whole and in Cambodia separately,” he said.

“The Golden Dragon military exercises between Cambodia and China are held regularly, but military exercises between Cambodia and the US and with other democratic countries such as Australia have not been made in recent years. This makes the US suspicious and concerned about threats to US security and strategic interests in the region,” he told The Post on May 28. 

However, during the conclusion ceremony of the naval portion of the exercises on May 27, a Cambodian defence official claimed that the joint naval drills presented no threat to any other nation, but were aimed at exchanging experiences in order to further enhance the ability of the militaries of both countries, particularly in the fight against terrorism at sea. 

Mengdavid said the Golden Dragon drills were not a threat to any country, and noted that Cambodia welcomes all friendly nations that wish to conduct military exercises with the Kingdom under bilateral or multilateral frameworks.

“In the past, Cambodia has also held the Angkor Sentinel military exercises with the US.

“Both China and the US are strong development partners of Cambodia, and the Kingdom wants to see the two superpowers work together to build an international system that is prosperous, harmonious, developed, peaceful and stable,” he added.

The US Department of Defense said in a May 24 press statement that during his stay, Austin is scheduled to meet with senior Cambodian officials.

The trip follows a previous visit to Cambodia in 2022, during which he attended the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) hosted by the Kingdom.

Before travelling to Cambodia, Austin will address the Shangri-La Dialogue, held from May 31 to June 2.

During the summit, he is scheduled to meet with Singapore’s new Prime Minister Lawrence Wong Shyun Tsai and other senior Singaporean officials. He will also attend multilateral meetings with his Southeast Asian counterparts, as well as a tripartite ministerial meeting with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea.

Austin also plans to meet bilaterally with his other counterparts from the Indo-Pacific region and with Chinese defence minister Dong Jun, before meeting with senior Cambodian officials.

“Secretary Austin’s tenth trip to the Indo-Pacific comes as the Department of Defense continues to strengthen US relationships with allies and partners in support of a shared regional vision for peace, stability, and deterrence,” the press statement said. 

Austin is scheduled to end his trip in France, where he will mark the 80th anniversary of “D-Day” by attending several commemorations.