What will the next China-Cambodia military exercise look like? – The diplomat

This week, media began reporting that China and Cambodia will hold the next iteration of a military exercise in March as the two countries commemorate the 60th anniversary of their ties this year and the Cambodian government faces elections this year. summer. The development is part of an ongoing broader trend where the two sides have deepened their military cooperation within the framework of broader national and regional considerations.

Cambodia has a long and solid defense relationship with China, with Beijing being its largest donor of military aid and posing few questions some Western countries have about the country’s rights record. The closer ties give Phnom Penh the much-needed strengthening and give China a strong Asian partner who supports Taiwan’s key Chinese initiatives and position in the South China Sea as it seeks to strengthen ties with the states of the region. In recent years, Beijing and Phnom Penh have further strengthened their ties in this area, including with new exercises and engagements, with the two countries having their first naval exercises in 2016. Although this is evident in other relations of the China along with Southeast Asian states as well, the degree and manner in which this has happened with respect to Cambodia has also raised concerns in some regional capitals.

This year is an important year for bilateral relations, with the two countries commemorating 60 years of bilateral relations and Cambodia heading towards general elections. As we move closer to these polls, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has attempted to consolidate its authority, cracking down on opposition groups and severing elements of its ties with certain Western powers, even as ‘it strengthened ties with China (see: “Why has Cambodia just degraded its military relations with the United States again?”). Indeed, just earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was in Cambodia where he signed 19 agreements covering a range of areas from infrastructure to health, which was widely reported in local media.

The field of defense has not been spared. In addition to the declarations and commitments made at the national level to enhance the military capabilities of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), in terms of external alignments, Cambodia has canceled or downgraded several aspects of its military ties with Australia and the United States while playing occasional announcements of new Chinese military aid (See: “Who loses when Cambodia cuts American military exercises?”). Last month, for example, during a visit to China, Major General Zhao Tianxing, commander of the Air Defense Force and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Artillery Academy, said that China would help further strengthen Cambodia’s military installations in terms of personnel, equipment, and training, referring to the Thlok Tasek Military Institute in Kampong Speu province which Beijing has already heavily funded.

This week, as expected, reports began to surface that the two sides had confirmed that they would hold the next iteration of their joint military exercises later this year. Khmer time said that, according to an RCAF statement containing remarks by Deputy Commander General Ith Sarath, the exercise will take place in March in Phnom Srouch district, Kampong Speu province. The subject of the military exercise would be terrorism, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, and the exercise would feature 280 Cambodian personnel and 190 Chinese personnel.

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No other details were reported about the exercise, including its specific designation, despite the fact that it was billed as a continuation of existing efforts. But the location and the numbers cited are consistent with those made in the past. For example, Golden Dragon, which took place in December 2016 at the Thlok Tasek Military Institute in Kampong Speu province and was cited at the time as “the first such operation in Cambodia”, also gathered about 500 soldiers from both sides and focused on areas such as flood relief, emergency road repair and construction, and medical treatment for natural disasters.

We’ll likely hear more details about the engagement as we get closer. But the conduct of the exercises is part of a larger pattern of behavior where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), facing arguably its most difficult test to date at home, has decided, at least for the ‘moment, to continue to strengthen military ties with China, which is content to do so without asking too many questions, while cutting or degrading certain aspects of these relations with certain Western countries which may pose too much.

Cambodian officials continue to deny that anything like this is at work, even if they sometimes do it badly. They undoubtedly fear to be perceived as endangering the autonomy of the country and putting the interests of the party in power before those of the national interest in their quest to consolidate the regime at all costs. But as I have observed before, the trends here are clear to everyone. And given all of this, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see more of this behavior in the coming months of an election year.

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