What does Hun Sen’s new military aid to Cambodia really mean? – The diplomat
There seems to be a lot less than it looks.
This week, shortly after the White House officially announced a series of cuts in aid to the Cambodian government on February 27, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made headlines when he bragged about a new influx of arms into the Southeast Asian state. While there actually appears to be a lot less than it appears here, Hun Sen’s bragging nonetheless fits into a larger pattern where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has strengthened its ties of defense with China to bolster its national legitimacy as it nears elections in July.
As I have noted repeatedly in these pages, Cambodia has a long and solid defense relationship with China, with Beijing being the largest donor of military aid and posing few questions than some Western countries, including states. -United and Australia, argue about the worsening of the country’s rights record (see: “The truth about competition between the United States and China in Cambodia”). In recent years in particular, Beijing and Phnom Penh have further strengthened their ties in this area, notably with new exercises and commitments. The two countries held their first naval exercises in 2016.
Unsurprisingly, this trend continued in 2018, with the two countries commemorating 60 years of bilateral ties and Cambodia preparing for general elections in July. As we move closer to these polls, the Hun Sen government has attempted to consolidate its authority, cracking down on opposition groups and severing elements of its ties with certain Western powers, even as the CPP has strengthened ties with China (see: “Why has Cambodia just degraded its military ties with the United States again?”). In December 2017, for example, during a visit to Cambodia, General de Division Zhao Tianxing, commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Defense Force and Artillery Academy, said China will help further strengthen Cambodia’s military facilities in terms of personnel., equipment and training.
So it’s no surprise when Hun Sen appeared to be pushing Beijing’s new military assistance again this week, even as Washington cut back on aid to Cambodia. Speaking to thousands of factory workers in Kampong Speu province, Hun Sen boasted about the importation of thousands of tons of weapons that had occurred overnight. He did not specify the country of origin, although few people knew he was referring to China. Although he did not provide many details, he spoke of “up to 10,000 tonnes … of ammunition and weapons” transported in containers in shipments which were under the responsibility of the Cambodian Minister of Defense. , Tea Banh.
Hun Sen’s statements were widely reported in the local media. But their imprecision, as well as his penchant for hyperbole, made it difficult to verify the details of what he really meant. In particular, Hun Sen’s way of talking about military equipment – which he called “confidential” and “special goods” – gave the impression that they were secret gifts provided for defense. National Cambodia by China in response to US actions, and so some media have described it.
Subsequent details, however, cast doubt on the influx of arms as a timely geopolitical development. Ministry spokesman Chum Socheat reportedly confirmed shortly after that the equipment was in fact an expected delivery in accordance with a military exercise the two countries were already scheduled to hold in mid-March. As I noted before, both sides already suggested in January that the next iteration of Golden Dragon would take place this month as part of the 60th anniversary commemoration of Sino-Cambodian relations in Phnom Srouch district in Kampong Speu province, where Hun Sen was speaking (see: “What will the next China-Cambodia military exercise look like?”).
If so, this appears to be another case of Hun Sen playing on existing Chinese military aid, both to bolster the legitimacy of the CPP amid deteriorating ties with Western states as its authoritarian descent continues, as well as to stress that the Cambodian army continues to be strengthened with help from Beijing to secure both the country and the ruling party. This is not the first time the Prime Minister has done this and it certainly will not be the last. It’s worth keeping in mind if we see more headlines in this direction in the months to come and beyond.