In a move to mend strained ties with the Kingdom, United States Ambassador Patrick Murphy met with Minister of Defence General Tea Banh yesterday to find a way to expand military cooperation.
The discussions were carried out at the Office of the Council of Ministers and attended by senior officials of the ministry as well as the US embassy.
Murphy wrote on Twitter late last night that he “discussed a range of potential areas of strengthened security cooperation, as well as ongoing efforts to preserve Cambodia’s sovereignty.”
Lieutenant General Khieu Chhen, Gen Banh’s cabinet chief told Khmer Times after the meeting yesterday that the two sides committed to resume military cooperation after the COVID-19 threat subsides.
“We discussed the bilateral cooperation between the Kingdom and the United States,” he said. “After the COVID-19 pandemic eases, the Defence Ministry and the US Department of Defense will strengthen existing military cooperation.”
Asked if the two sides discussed the resumption of joint military exercises between the two countries, Lt Gen Chhen said they did not. However, he said the working group from the two countries will work on the matter.
“Our stance is to strengthen military cooperation, especially the disrupted activity since late 2019 and 2020, when we have been facing COVID-19,” he said.
US Embassy spokesperson Arend Zwartjes said via email yesterday that during the meeting the two sides had discussed military cooperation, saying it was a “productive meeting.”
“Ambassador Murphy had a productive meeting with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defense Tea Banh today [Monday]. They discussed a wide range of potential areas of military cooperation and Ambassador Murphy expressed the US commitment to support Cambodia’s sovereignty,” he said.
“We are hopeful that we can find a way to expand military-to-military cooperation,” Zwartjes added.
In 2017, a joint military exercise with the United States was cancelled due to what many speculated to be a souring of their relationship due to strained diplomatic ties.
However, the Ministry of Defence said at the time that it was called off so the government could focus on a six-month national anti-drug campaign and the 2017 commune election.
“Their [US] support was focused on military training, especially peacekeeping missions under the umbrella of the United Nations, sending our trainees to study in the US, as well as joint military exercises,” Lt Gen Chhen added.
Prime Minister Hun Sen in April said that the government has welcomed resumed military drills with the United States after they had been suspended for about three years.
His comment was made in response to some critics who accused the Kingdom of holding an annual military drill with China despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Hun Sen noted that Cambodia welcomes the exercises and whatever the US requests.
Mr Hun Sen also called on the US to stop using a pretext that Cambodia rejected its military assistance or ceased military exercise drills with it.
A US Embassy spokesperson previously said the possible hosting of Chinese military facilities in the Kingdom, given the high level of Chinese economic and political influence in Cambodia, is regarded as a real concern.
The meeting between Gen Banh and Ambassador Murphy was made just days after Gen Banh publicly criticised the US after the Department of the Treasury on September 15 imposed sanctions on Chinese private firm Union Development Group (UDG) in Cambodia, with Gen Banh considering it part of US “geopolitical ambitions.”