Cambodia and China have no plans to cancel their fourth annual joint “Golden Dragon” military exercise later this month, despite the threat of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh said Monday.
This year’s exercise, held under the theme “counter-terrorism and humanitarianism,” will take place from March 14 to April 1 at military training site in Chumkiri district, in Cambodia’s Kampot province, Agence Kampuchea Press (AKP) reported.
Drills will involve 3,000 soldiers—including 265 members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—and vehicles such as tanks, artillery, mortars, and helicopters.
“Nothing has changed for our various forms of cooperation, including the upcoming Golden Dragon military exercises,” AKP quoted Tea Banh as saying during a ceremony at the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, during which the minister led a delegation that donated 300,000 face masks and 1,500 sets of protective gowns to Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian to help Beijing combat the spread of COVID-19.
“We will continue to hold it—no plans have been cancelled or suspended,” he said, adding that “cooperation between Cambodia and China will grow ever stronger and more active.”
Tea Banh expressed confidence that Beijing will be able to effectively deal with the coronavirus, which, as of Monday, had infected more than 80,000 people in China and killed nearly 3,000. Around the world, the virus has infected more than 9,000 others and left more than 130 dead.
Wang echoed Tea Banh’s pledge to hold the joint exercises and praised Cambodia’s government for its assistance to the people of China and for refraining from suspending flights between the two countries.
Calls by RFA’s Khmer Service to Tea Banh and defense ministry spokesperson Chhum Socheat seeking comment on the decision to proceed with the joint exercises went unanswered Monday, but Sok Ey San, spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said the drills will be held because no cases of COVID-19 have been discovered in Cambodia.
“Other countries have cancelled events due to COVID-19, but we don’t have it in Cambodia,” he told RFA.
This year’s exercises mark an expansion over those in 2019, when 250 Chinese and 2,500 Cambodian military personnel took part in drills over 15 days at the Chum Kiri Military Shooting Range Training Field in Chum Kiri district.
They were the third and largest joint Cambodia-China military drills to be held on Cambodian soil since Cambodia’s Defense Ministry abruptly suspended annual “Angkor Sentinel” joint exercises with the U.S. military and abandoned counter-terrorism training exercises with the Australian military in 2017.
The government had claimed it was too busy preparing security for commune elections in June 2017 to take part in the exercises, but they have yet to be reestablished.
Observers said at the time that the moves indicated Cambodia was pivoting away from Western influence in favor of better relations with other countries on the rise in Asia, such as China.
‘Controlled by China’
Political commentator Kim Sok told RFA on Monday that the decision to proceed with the Golden Dragon exercises “clearly illustrates that Cambodia under the rule of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen is being controlled by China to promote all of its strategies.”
“Whether or not it is cancelled is not the decision of Hun Sen, but determined by China based on how to serve its own interests,” he said.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer on international affairs for the College of ASEAN Community Studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University, told RFA in an emailed statement that “Cambodia wants to show China that she is a trustworthy ally.”
“What better way to prove it then to insist on these exercises when COVID-19 is abounding,” he said, adding that “the virus could easily spread” in the country without the right protections in place.
Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in California, said the announcement “once again signals the wrong priorities [for Cambodia].”
“The danger Cambodia faces has nothing to do with terrorism, but rather poor governance—COVID-19 is the real threat we should be preparing for,” he said.
“This is just one more distraction, when all of the government’s efforts should be put towards protecting the people of Cambodia from external threats, not internal threats. What are the internal threats? The threat of democracy, human rights, and freedom?”
Cambodia drew condemnation after its Supreme Court dissolved the country’s main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, paving the way for Hun Sen’s CPP to steamroll a general election in July 2018 widely seen as unfree and unfair.
After the CPP’s election victory, Beijing offered its full support of Hun Sen’s government, and Cambodia has increasingly backed China in its international affairs, including in disputes with ASEAN nations over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese investment has flowed into Cambodia in the form of real estate, agriculture and entertainment, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
Meanwhile, Western influence in Cambodia is on the decline amid criticism of Hun Sen and the CPP over restrictions on democracy in the lead up to and aftermath of the ballot.
The U.S. has since announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and the European Union in mid-February announced plans to suspend tariff-free access to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on human rights.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in China has led to major supply chain disruptions amid quarantines and travel restrictions, leaving Cambodia’s crucial garment industry without the materials it needs to operate, while observers suggested even tougher losses for factories and workers when combined with a drop in orders from EU buyers in anticipation of a return to tariffs on some Cambodian imports.
Last week, Ministry of Labor spokesman Heng Sour said that in March, at least 200 factories are expected to face raw material shortages, and as many as 160,000 workers would be affected due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
On Monday, Hun Sen announced that in addition to the at least 10 factories that have requested a partial suspension of operations, leaving 3,000 laborers without work, two more factories in the capital of Sihanoukville province have applied for a suspension citing a shortage of raw materials from China due to quarantines and travel restrictions there, and that some 350 workers will be affected.
“China supplies 60 percent of raw materials in terms of fabric to our garment factories, therefore, we ask our Chinese friends to help send those materials to Cambodia as soon as possible to avoid suspension [of operations] and employment of our workers,” he told an audience at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh.
“I received information from the governor of Sihanoukville that likely two small factories—one with 180 workers and another one with 170 workers—have requested to suspend operations.”
Hun Sen reiterated an earlier pledge that workers will continue to receive up to 60 percent of their pay during any suspension, but said that in order to be eligible, they must attend vocational training for four months.
The head of the Sihanoukville Department of Labor and Vocational Training, Yov Khemara, told RFA that the two factories that applied for suspension were factories producing shoes and bags, and said they will shut down operations until March 31.
He stressed that the suspension was caused by a lack of raw materials, not the effect of the EU's partial EBA withdrawal—a decision that would reinstate tariffs on garments and footwear beginning Aug. 12, unless it is overturned by the bloc’s governments or its parliament.
“The EBA is not officially in effect … and these factories export their products to Japan only,” he said.
Yov Khemara said there are more than 150 factories in Sihanoukville, and if China can deliver the materials to Cambodia on time, according to the government's request, “the factories will continue to operate.”
Ministry of Labor spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment about the latest suspensions on Monday.
But Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, told RFA that the closing of factories and loss of jobs for Cambodian workers is likely related to the EU’s decision.
He said that reassurances from the government amounted to “merely a political message, but in fact they cannot solve the problem for our workers.”
“We can see that the only way to solve this issue is for the government to coordinate with the EU so as to retain the EBA scheme and reassure investors,” he said.
The EU’s decision, which Hun Sen has shrugged off and called an attack on Cambodia’s sovereignty, will result in a loss of around U.S. $1.1 billion of the country’s annual U.S. $5.8 billion in exports to the bloc, some 75 percent of which are made up of clothing and textiles.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.