Cambodia signals foreign policy shift by halting military drills with China

Photo: User:RCarmy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cambodia’s postponement of an important military exercise with its closest ally has more to do with the county’s foreign policy and shifting relations with Washington than COVID-19.

By Umair Jamal

In February, the Cambodian government suspended a planned joint military exercise with China, citing the need to cut spending in order to allocate more resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But the government’s explanation is less than convincing and likely has more to do with the country’s foreign policy, particularly its broken relationship with the United States.

Hun Sen may be using the decision to test the waters with the new administration in the US—to see how President Joe Biden’s government views the development and if closer relations are possible.

If this is the case, then Cambodia will have to do a lot more to rebuild ties with Washington and should be ready for more questions from the US on the country’s poor human rights record and the growing influence of China in the country.

Cambodia cites economy and COVID-19 to cancel military exercise

The 2021 Golden Dragon military exercise was a joint training between China and Cambodia scheduled for March 13-27. Cambodia announced in February that it needed to postpone the exercise due to the impacts of COVID-19 as well as flooding in 2020.

The Golden Dragon exercise is an annual operation that began in 2016 and aims to build the capacity of both countries for humanitarian operations, disaster management and counter-terrorism. For 2021, the exercise would have involved roughly 3,000 soldiers in various military drills.

Explaining Cambodia’s decision to suspend the exercise, Defense Minister Tea Banh told Radio Free Asia’s Khmer-language service that devastating floods have severely impacted the country’s infrastructure and food supply. The situation resulting from these floods has “severely affected the well-being and livelihood of the people and is expected to result in more poverty and hardship. So, based on this, we have suspended the military exercise,” according to Banh.

Banh made visible efforts to give an impression that the cancelation should viewed as a consensus between China and Cambodia. While making the announcement, he said that despite the cancellation, the military relationship between the two countries remains the same and also praised Beijing for sponsoring the military exercise.

China’s ambassador to Cambodia, Wang Wentianm, who also attended the cancelation ceremony, said in his remarks that the two countries’ military partnership is one of the key ways to strengthen their bilateral relationship.

But it’s unlikely that COVID-19 and flood impacts are the primary reasons for the cancelation. During 2020’s exercise, which started on 15 March and concluded in the first week of April, both countries reiterated the need to hold these drills despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 exercise was held despite widespread fears that the Chinese troops might bring coronavirus to Cambodia. In 2021, the risk is likely lower than last year as China has rolled out COVID-19 vaccinations and the world has learned more about the virus and how to contain it.

Cambodia’s explanation that it had to cancel the drills due to financial burden is also not very convincing. All previous military drills were funded by China and Cambodian Defense Ministry Spokesperson Chhum Socheat reportedly said China’s military aid to Cambodia would continue despite the 2021 cancelation.

Since Cambodia’s announcement, Beijing has made few public statements on the issue. To an extent, this shows that while China may not be visibly offended by Cambodia’s decision, it likely isn’t pleased.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is the decision driven by Cambodia’s foreign policy considerations?

Cambodia’s unexpected decision resembles a similar decision it made to cancel military exercises with the US in 2017 after decades of cooperation. The Angkor Sentinel military exercise between Cambodia and the US had been taking place since 2010. In 2017, Cambodia also canceled a long-running navy program with the US that came with humanitarian assistance, including for building schools and hospitals.

The move was the first major sign of the now-declining relationship between the two countries. Since then, Cambodia has increasingly come under US pressure for its overt leanings towards China, reported human rights abuses and a crackdown on political opposition. Over the last few years, the US has criticized Cambodia’s alleged plans to allow a Chinese military presence in the country. In December 2020, the US told Hun Sen’s government that Cambodia will have to demonstrate that it is resisting China’s influence and must stop political repression in order to obtain US$85 million in aid.  

Regarding Hun Sen’s growing closeness towards China, Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, told Voice of America that “Cambodia’s decision to bandwagon with China is aimed at insulating itself from Western pressures to maintain a liberal, multiparty democracy and to respect human rights. Cambodia knows that if it hews to China’s line, there will be little or no interference in its domestic political affairs.”

However, it is still possible that Hun Sen doesn’t want Cambodia to be labeled as a Chinese client state. The cancellation of the 2021 Golden Dragon exercise may have been meant to send a message to the new government in the US that Cambodia is ready for rapprochement.

Eng Chhai Eang, deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, has rejected the government’s explanations for the move and told Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service that Cambodia needs to appear more neutral before Washington’s foreign policy approach towards the Southeast Asian region becomes clearer under the new administration.

“[Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s government has suspended the Golden Dragon exercise not because of COVID-19, but more a matter of foreign policy,” he said.

Echoing Eang’s view, Sun Kim, lecturer in international relations at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia, told Voice of America that “Cambodia’s decision to postpone the drill would send a good signal to the United States that Cambodia is not doing too much bidding in support of China’s standing in Southeast Asia.”

If Hun Sen is looking to reset relations under President Biden’s government, he will have to do more than simply cancel a military exercise with China. Cambodia’s poor human rights record under Hun Sen’s government and suppression of opposition are no longer disputed. Cambodia will also have to express willingness to accommodate Washington’s interests on foreign policy issues like the South China Sea dispute, where the country continues to support Beijing. If Cambodia wants to revive dialogue with the US, Hun Sen’s government should be ready to face more questions about the authoritarian nature of the current administration.   

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15