Buddhist-majority Cambodia is being squeezed by the United States and China for favors while Prime Minister Hun Sen's son, Hun Manet, prepares to take power.

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Hun Manet, trained by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, may become Cambodia's next leader after his pro-China father Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently anointed him, prompting scrutiny about how the heir apparent would deal with Washington and Beijing.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, 69, is often scathing in his criticism of the U.S.  He favors China's deepening economic and strategic relationship with Cambodia which is bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and opens toward the South China Sea where the U.S. and Beijing compete for access.

"Cambodia is far too deep in with China to be able to rebalance quickly," if Hun Manet becomes prime minister, said Sophal Ear, an Arizona State University associate dean and professor for global development who co-authored the book, "The Hungry Dragon: How China's Resource Quest Is Reshaping the World."

"Despite his West Point education and M.A. in economics from New York University, and PhD. in economics from Bristol [university in England], and while I know he is not averse to the U.S. on a personal level -- having spent years in America, and visited in the years since -- the decision to tilt towards China is one that he alone cannot change," Mr. Sophal Ear said in an interview.

When the prime minister visited Beijing in 2020, he brought Hun Manet who met China's President Xi Jinping.

In 1999, Hun Sen stood proudly next to his son at West Point, N.Y., during graduation ceremonies when Hun Manet became the first Cambodian to earn a West Point diploma.

While attending the coeducational, four-year undergraduate college -- which describes itself as "the preeminent leader development institution" -- Hun Manet rubbed shoulders with U.S. Army officers during warfare training.

After West Point, Hun Manet became the Royal Cambodian Army's commander, and deputy commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, plus deputy commander of his father's bodyguards, and head Cambodia's counterterrorism unit.

In June 2021, however, Washington stopped allowing Cambodia to send students to West Point and other U.S. military academies amid worsening relations.

"Following Cambodia's curtailment of cooperation in several areas of traditional bilateral military-military engagement, the country lost its eligibility for the U.S. military service academy program," U.S. Embassy in Cambodia's spokesman Arend Zwartjes told Voice of America.

"Unless he [Hun Manet] himself signals rapprochement with the United States through actions and not just words, the United States is likely to stay the course with Cambodia, cooling relations," Mr. Sophal Ear said.

In December, the central committee of Hun Sen's powerful Cambodia People's Party (CPP) unanimously endorsed Hun Manet, 44, as "the prime minister candidate in the future".

The CPP holds all of parliament's seats, and scheduled general elections for 2023.

Hun Sen may step aside at that time and allow his son to take over.

Alternatively, if Hun Sen runs for reelection in 2023, he may now be cementing Hun Manet as heir apparent for elections in 2028, or if anything unexpected happens to Hun Sen before then.

Perhaps to defuse perceptions that he is dictating a dynastic power grab, Hun Sen said in a December speech:

"If Hun Manet makes a mistake, I will not support my son to be the prime minister, because it affects the party."

Hun Sen invited CPP senior officials to suggest other candidates, including some of their sons.

"Even if they are the sons of [CPP vice-president] Sar Kheng, [deputy prime minister and defense minister] Tea Banh, or other deputy prime ministers, or [parliament's first vice-president] Cheam Yeap’s son, please propose your candidates," Hun Sen said, according to the Khmer Times.

To confuse rivals, Hun Sen also vowed in December to remain prime minister for 10 more years.

Hun Manet's advantages come from his father's harsh, command-driven style of governing which increased after elections in 2018 resulted in a one-party regime.

But the son is overshadowed by Hun Sen's blood-stained reputation.

Hun Sen lost an eye while fighting as a loyal mid-level Khmer Rouge commander of Cambodia's Eastern Zone during an anti-U.S. insurgency in the regional Vietnam War, which later enabled Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's 1975-79 murderous rule.

Apparently fearing he might be purged, Hun Sen defected to Vietnam in 1977 while Pol Pot's government presided over the death of more than one million Cambodians by execution, torture, and starvation.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, chased Pol Pot into the jungle, and began a 10-year occupation with Hun Sen as Cambodia's foreign minister and, in 1985, prime minister.

"Given that his father waged war against the U.S. -- while he [Hun Manet] was trained in war by the U.S. -- Manet’s deeper understanding of U.S. society, culture, and politics may enable him to display more nuance in balancing Cambodia’s interests between the U.S. and China than has his father," said Craig Etcheson in an interview.

Mr. Etcheson researched Cambodian affairs for 40 years including more than a decade living in Cambodia. He authored four books about the country including, "Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics, and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals."

"I would expect that the U.S. military attaches in Phnom Penh attempt to maintain close links with Hun Manet, and that U.S. ambassadors give him due attention," Mr. Etcheson said.

Washington however may be in a weak position competing with Beijing for Hun Manet's favor.

"The U.S. cannot win a bidding war against China for the loyalty of a dictatorship," said Richard Garella, who was The Cambodia Daily newspaper's managing editor in the 1990s, opposition leader Sam Rainsy's press secretary in 1998-99, and a U.S.-funded International Republican Institute consultant during 2003 in Cambodia.

"It would make sense for Hun Manet to run for a seat in the assembly [parliament] at his earliest convenience, that way he could be elected prime minister at any convenient time," Mr. Garella said in an interview.

Hun Sen currently governs without opposition leaders who previously plagued him.

Former prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who yearned for a political comeback, died in self-exile at the age of 77 in France in November.

Also in November, self-exiled Sam Rainsy -- who often voiced nonexistent conspiracies smearing Hun Sen -- lost his alliance with opposition leader Kem Sokha during a political feud.

Kem Sokha, who headed the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, is currently on trial in Cambodia on treason charges which he denied.

Several other opponents of Hun Sen have also been jailed, fled abroad, cowed into silence, or had their political parties dissolved.

The prime minister's anti-U.S. posture includes his attempt in 2017 to have his unidentified grandchild renounce his or her American citizenship, after being born in the U.S. when one of Hun Sen's six adult children studied there.

"Now I am finding a way to renounce U.S. citizenship from my grandchild, because probably the U.S. will make war with some countries and will require my grandchild to be a U.S. soldier," the prime minister wrote in a Facebook post, according to Associated Press.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at