The US defence secretary Austin to visit Cambodia after regional talks


PHNOM PENH: US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin (pic) is scheduled to make an official visit to Cambodia, one of China's closest allies in South-East Asia, after holding talks with his Chinese counterpart at an annual security conference in Singapore, officials said.

A US Defence Department statement issued in Washington on Friday (May 24) said Austin would travel next week to Singapore, Cambodia and France.

He will visit Cambodia on June 4 after attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Among the talks he is planning there is one with his Chinese counterpart Adm Dong Jun, the Defence Department said. The encounter would be part of an effort to patch up ties that have deteriorated over Beijing's aggressive policies toward Taiwan and its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.

US relations with Cambodia have been frosty for years, in large part because of Phnom Penh’s close ties with China. Washington has also been vocal about what it sees as Cambodia’s poor human rights record, which has seen continuing clampdowns on political dissidents and critics.

Cambodia is Beijing’s closest ally in South-East Asia, and Washington is particularly concerned that a naval base in southern Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand has been upgraded with Chinese assistance to serve as a strategic outpost for China’s navy.

Cambodian officials deny China will have any special basing privileges and say their country maintains a neutral defence posture.

The Defence Department statement said that Austin will meet with senior officials in Cambodia on his first visit there since attending a gathering of Asian defense ministers in November 2022.

"We are now working with the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to arrange his meetings with the Cambodian leaders,” Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Chum Sounry said Saturday in response to a query from The Associated Press. "The visit will be another important step to advance the Cambodia-U.S. relations.”

It will also be Austin’s first visit to Cambodia since Hun Manet became prime minister last year, succeeding his father Hun Sen, who held office for 38 years. The handover has led to speculation of a reset in US-Cambodian relations, though so far Hun Manet has maintained his father’s policies.

Hun Manet was Cambodia’s army commander before becoming prime minister last August. Both Austin and he graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point - Austin in 1975 and Hun Manet in 1999, as Cambodia's first cadet there.

From Cambodia, Austin will go to France to attend events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the World War II D-Day landing, the Defence Department said.

On Friday, Austin underwent a medical procedure at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, resuming his duty after temporarily transferring power to his deputy, Pentagon press secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder said in a statement.

Austin is continuing to deal with bladder issues that arose in December following his treatment for prostate cancer, Ryder said. - AP

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