China is beefing up its naval commitment to Cambodia this week, just as the saber-rattling over the South China Sea hits a new high water mark.
While Phnom Penh and Beijing said the two counties first-ever joint naval exercise will focus on rescue operations, the mission comes as China’s moves in the South China Sea are grabbing international attention.
The Chinese-Cambodian exercise coincides with an expected announcement that the Asian giant will provide Cambodia with a pair of ships.
A Sihanoukville Port official told RFA’s Khmer Service that three Chinese navy warships with 737 Chinese sailors docked Monday morning for a 5-day visit in Cambodia. About 30 Cambodian sailors will join their Chinese counterparts for the exercises.
"This will be a big cooperation and joint exercise training in rescue operations," Cambodia's deputy navy chief, Vice Admiral Vann Bunneang, told Reuters. "This is to boost readiness for when boats sink and natural disasters occur."
Chinese People’s Liberation Navy representatives were also to travel to Phnom Penh Wednesday to meet with Minister of Defense Tea Banh and Cambodia’s Commander of Navy Forces Tea Vinh, the port official told RFA.
In today’s meeting Tea Vinh is expected to secure a commitment from the Chinese Ministry of Defense for a pair of warships to defend Cambodia’s coast, but Tea Vinh said the request is still being negotiated and no official has stated what type of vessel the countries are discussing.
China and Cambodia may view the exercise as benign, but it comes as Beijing appears to be fortifying its outposts in the South China Sea with missile batteries and radar stations. China is also reported to have landed fighter jets on one of the islands it has been building in the area that is also claimed by Vietnam.
Currently China is the major aid donor for the Cambodian military, supplying helicopters and ground vehicles as well building a military institute and training forces in China. The naval exercise and the ships show that relationship is in little danger.
Tea Vinh said the South China Sea conflict should be solved peacefully, but he told Chinese Admiral Yu Manjiang that Cambodia supports China on the issue, RFA has learned.
While Cambodia has a small navy operating mostly small patrol craft, the nation could become an important player in the dispute as it is one of China’s most reliable allies in the region.
Cambodia has split from its neighboring Southeast Asian nations before in support of China. In 2012, when Cambodia chaired the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN suffered a period of division and dysfunction after Cambodia repeatedly stymied efforts to discuss the South China Sea issue at a regional summit.
While 2016’s ASEAN meeting ended with a joint statement that includes a commitment to “ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses,” it avoided any mention of China’s activities.
Reported by Mengchou Cheng. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.