Cambodia and China have launched their third annual joint “Golden Dragon” military exercise in grand style, drawing concerns from analysts who say the drills are generating international “suspicion” as Phnom Penh pivots from the West and increasingly towards Beijing.
The exercise, which began Wednesday after two weeks of rehearsals, will feature more than 250 Chinese and 2,500 Cambodian military personnel drilling over the course of 15 days at the Chum Kiri Military Shooting Range Training Field in Kampot province’s Chum Kiri district.
Significantly larger than last year’s joint exercise, the Golden Dragon drills are expected to include armored trucks, tanks, and helicopters, as well as artillery and mortars, and will focus on combating terrorism in addition to running rescue operations during natural disasters, before ending with a March 27 closing ceremony overseen by Defense Minister General Tea Banh.
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) deputy commander in chief Ith Sarat told reporters during Wednesday’s opening ceremony that more personnel were involved in this year’s exercise than ever before, and that the drills will help to bolster military relations between the two countries.
“This military exercise is not meant to threaten any nation,” he added.
The 2019 Golden Dragon exercise is 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 last year 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.
On Wednesday, government spokesperson Phay Siphan told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia is considering reestablishing military exercises with the U.S.
“We were busy with elections in the past, but now I believe that we will resume military exercises with the U.S.,” he said, without providing any details.
Pivot to China
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 Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to steamroll a general election in July last year 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 rollbacks 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, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
Political commentator Kim Sok told RFA that Cambodia was hurting itself by turning away from the West and embracing China.
“We are losing important economic engagement with the West, while these exercises only end up making other nations suspicious of our intentions,” he said.
Last month, as Cambodia and China began rehearsals for the Golden Dragon exercises, international affairs expert Em Sovannara said Cambodia would do “better to reauthorize” military exercises with the U.S. and Australia to dispel any suggestion that it is “tilting towards China.”
He said he believed it was necessary for Cambodia to conduct exercises with China, but urged the government to “balance its foreign policy” to ensure that the government does not appear to be leaning too much in favor the Asian superpower.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.