U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attends the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore June 1, 2024.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attends the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore June 1, 2024. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

SINGAPORE (Reuters) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Cambodia on Tuesday for a brief visit aimed at reversing some of the gains China has made in the country amid increasing concern about Beijing’s growing presence at a key Cambodian naval base.

Cambodia’s decision to allow China to develop Ream Naval Base, located at a key waterway on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand in Sihanoukville province, has Washington worried that it will give Beijing a new outpost near the contested South China Sea, most of which is claimed by China.

Adding to the U.S. concerns, China last month sent two warships to Cambodia and East Timor on a tour that will last to mid-June.

Austin confirmed his arrival in Phnom Penh with a post on X on Tuesday.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was optimism in Washington that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, who studied at West Point, will be more aligned with Washington than his predecessor, his father Hun Sen.

After stepping down as prime minister last year, Hun Sen has become president of the Cambodian Senate, and told a local newspaper before the 2023 election that his son would rule in his own model.

“This isn’t a visit that is about significant deliverables and achievements,” the U.S. defense official said.

“We’re very clear eyed about some of the challenges that we’ve had on both sides between the United States and Cambodia in the past, I think we’ll be very direct and articulate about how we see U.S. interests,” the official added.

Before a China-funded upgrade began in June 2022, Ream had been the site of some joint naval training and exercises between the United States and Cambodia. Cambodia demolished the U.S.-built facility in October 2020.

Two Chinese warships, likely corvettes or frigates, have been docked at Ream since December.

China has been boosting its “ironclad” friendship with the Southeastern Asian country, amid high-level state and military leader exchanges since last year.

In March, Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun met with Deputy Commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and Commander of the Royal Cambodian Army Mao Sophan in Beijing, with both pledging further military cooperation.

Last week, Hun Manet said Cambodia would begin construction in August of a Chinese-backed $1.7 billion canal that has caused tension with neighbouring Vietnam and sparked fears that it could be used by Chinese warships. Cambodia has dismissed those claims as baseless.

(Editing by John Mair)

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now