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China leg up on US for Cambodia’s military loyalty

BANGKOK – The US and China are taking turns wooing Cambodia’s West Point-educated prime minister with guns, money and friendship but the Chinese are scoring most of the rewards.

Just as Beijing’s biggest military exercise in Cambodia was ending, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Phnom Penh to offer military assistance and mend the often rough diplomatic relations between the two former wartime enemies.

Austin met Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet and Defense Minister Tea Seiha during his one-day stop on June 4, after attending a Singapore defense forum where he met his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Dong Jun.

Coincidentally, Hun Manet was the US Military Academy at West Point’s first Cambodian cadet in 1999, 24 years after Austin graduated from there in 1975.

That may have smoothed the way for their talks which likely included Beijing’s military advances in Cambodia amid the smoldering rivalry along the Gulf of Thailand, which is used by China’s Navy and the US 7th Fleet’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

The US is also concerned with Cambodia’s alleged human rights abuses and crackdown on political and press freedoms, and plans by Phnom Penh and Beijing to dig a canal from the Mekong River to the Gulf of Thailand.

Hun Manet was blatantly boosted into power last year by his authoritarian father, former prime minister Hun Sen, who consistently welcomed China’s increase in Cambodia’s economic, diplomatic and military affairs.

China’s May 16-30 Golden Dragon 2024 military exercises in Cambodia were “the first since Hun Manet became prime minister, indicating that he is continuing to expand his father’s embrace of China,” said Craig Etcheson, an author and researcher about Cambodian.

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