En route from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Austin landed in Phnom Penh on Tuesday for the one-day visit to “explore opportunities to deepen our bilateral defence relationship”, he wrote on social media platform X.
He first met Hun Sen – who stepped down last summer after a nearly four-decade rule over Cambodia – and is also meeting Prime Minister Hun Manet, who took over from his father.
Hun Manet took over as Cambodia’s prime minister last year. His father Hun Sen stepped down last summer after a nearly four-decade rule over the country. Photo: Yonhap via EPA/EFE

Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Chum Sounry told reporters last week that Austin’s visit would be “another good chance to advance ties and relations of the two countries”.

Both Austin and Hun Manet graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point – Austin in 1975 and Hun Manet in 1999.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said “US-Cambodia relations are at an inflection point after Hun Manet became prime minister”.

He said that Austin’s visit to Cambodia “signifies that the two sides are willing to jettison some of their rigid policies restricting defence cooperation and engage in renewed dialogue to seek common ground”.

Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Seiha (right) salutes alongside Lieutenant General Jia Jian Cheng (centre), deputy commander of China’s Southern Theatre Command, on Thursday during the Golden Dragon joint military exercises in Cambodia’s Kampong Chhnang province. Photo: Kyodo

Austin’s visit comes just days after Cambodia and China wrapped up their largest annual military Golden Dragon exercises, involving several Chinese warships and hundreds of military personnel.

In early 2017 Cambodia scrapped a similar joint exercise with US forces.

Cambodian officials have repeatedly denied that the base, near the port city of Sihanoukville, is for use by any foreign power.

Cambodian political analyst Ou Virak said that the relaunch of joint exercises might be a point of discussion during Austin’s visit.

The Pentagon chief would also want to convey a message to Beijing, “saying this region is too important and China won’t have free rein”, he added.