Defense Minister Tea Banh will meet Tuesday in Hawaii with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as well as nine other Asean defense ministers at the first U.S.-hosted meeting with the regional defense chiefs, officials said.
Gen. Banh, speaking at a news conference at Phnom Penh International Airport before his departure, told reporters that he plans to inform the ministers and Mr. Hagel about the “real situation” in Cambodia.
“We cannot let some people speak alone. Countries do not listen only to one side. If they want to know the real situation, they will listen to both sides,” he said, without mentioning the opposition CNRP by name.
Gen. Banh has repeatedly promised to defend Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, along with the Constitution under which it was elected, since July’s disputed national election.
The CNRP, meanwhile, has lobbied the international community to halt aid to Cambodia until an ongoing dispute over July’s election has been settled.
General Nem Sowath, director-general of the Defense Ministry’s foreign affairs and cooperation department, said Gen. Banh’s agenda includes three topics: the U.S.’ political priorities in Asean, including military cooperation; sea border disputes; and regional stability.
“Among the discussions will be the cooperation of Asean’s armies and the U.S. Army in an effort to obtain more experience when it comes to such incidents as disasters,” said Gen. Sowath, who also addressed reporters before Gen. Banh’s departure.
“There will also be a roundtable discussion between the defense ministers and the U.S. defense minister. The ministers will also meet with representatives of civil society organizations,” he added.
Local media outlets reported that Mr. Banh will have a bilateral meeting with Mr. Hagel on the sidelines of the Asean meeting.
However, Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, said Monday he did not know if such a meeting would take place.
“I have no specifics on a one-on-one meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh and Secretary Hagel,” he said.
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said that the meeting would likely avoid discussions that might upset China.
“I suspect this will be very general and tentative, as Asean doesn’t want to be seen as coming out of this meeting as working with the U.S. against China,” he said.
The meeting comes in the midst of the U.S.’ strategic shift toward Asia, and at a time of strained relations between Cam*bodia and the U.S.
In January, U.S. President Ba*rack Obama signed a spending bill that suspends some funding to Cambodia until there is an investigation into the national election or until the CNRP ends its boycott of Parliament.
Last year, following criticism from U.S. congressman over the election, Cambodia unilaterally postponed some U.S.-backed military assistance programs.
Gen. Banh last traveled to the U.S. in 2009 to meet then-U.S. Sec*retary of Defense Robert Gates about peacekeeping, maritime security and counterterrorism.
dara@cambodiadaily.com, wilwohl@cambodiadaily.com
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