“Cambodia-China Military Drills Highlight Deepening Bilateral Relations” by Ian Storey

2018/32, 20 March 2018

On 17 March 2018, the armed forces of Cambodia and China began two weeks of combined military exercises to celebrate 60 years of bilateral relations. The “Golden Dragon 2018” exercises are taking place in Kampong Speu province and involve 307 personnel from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and 215 soldiers from China. The exercises will include anti-terrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training. According to senior RCAF officers, China will subside most of the costs of the exercises.

Since Prime Minister Hun Sen consolidated power in a coup in 1997, China has become Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and trade partner, aid donor and source of tourists. In return, Cambodia has supported China on core political issues such as Taiwan, Xinjiang and the South China Sea. Cambodia’s support for Beijing over the South China Sea has repeatedly put ASEAN unity under strain, especially in 2012 and 2016.

China is Cambodia’s closest foreign military partner and over the past two decades has donated a significant amount of defence equipment, including military vehicles, helicopters, shoulder-fired missiles and patrol boats, and has also provided the RCAF with financial support for barracks and educational institutions. However, it was not until 2016 that the two countries’ armed forces held their first combined military exercises.

Golden Dragon 2018 is taking place at a time when Cambodia’s relations with the West have become increasingly estranged over the country’s slide into authoritarianism. During 2017, Hun Sen cracked down on the media and dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), thus paving the way for a complete electoral victory in the general elections scheduled for July 2018. Hun Sen has accused the United States of supporting the CNRP in preparation for staging a “colour revolution” (i.e. regime change) in Cambodia, and in 2017 suspended military exercises with the United States for the next two years. In February 2018, in response to the democratic backsliding, the Trump administration announced it would curtail developmental and military aid to Cambodia.  In contrast, China has consistently offered its political support for Hun Sen and increased aid to Cambodia.  Earlier this year, Beijing praised bilateral ties as a “model of country-to-country relations”.

Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.