China's army soldiers sit on their tanks as they attend the opening of military exercise in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, March 17, 2018.
China's army soldiers sit on their tanks as they attend the opening of military exercise in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, March 17, 2018.

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA  - Hundreds of Cambodian and Chinese soldiers began a 15-day joint military exercise in central Cambodia this week, involving live-fire rocket launches from helicopters, mock tank battles, and anti-terrorism and emergency relief training. China will reportedly also donate tanks and armored personnel carriers on the occasion.

The unprecedented show of military cooperation, dubbed “Golden Dragon,” is the latest sign that the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is relying on Beijing to further shore up its control of the country through growing diplomatic, economic and military support, according to analysts.

They say increased Chinese military support will also aid the Cambodian army’s balance of power with its neighbors. But some warn that Cambodia’s suspension of planned joint exercises with the U.S. military last year signals Phnom Penh’s growing divide with Washington and its regional allies, as well as other Asian countries that seek to counter China’s aspirations for regional primacy.

Last year, Cambodia suspended a planned joint military exercise with the U.S. Army, called Angkor Sentinel, that was to have been held for the eighth year straight. Also canceled was a long-running U.S. Navy program that provided humanitarian assistance in the country. Cambodia said its forces were too busy to join the annual exercise.

Major General Zhang Jian, commander of the Chinese
Major General Zhang Jian, commander of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command, and Pol Saroeun, commander-in-chief of the Cambodian military, attend the opening of military exercise in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, March 17, 2018.

?Guaranteeing internal security

“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,” said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

“China provides the training and material assistance to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces necessary for it to defend Cambodia’s borders and, if called upon, to guarantee internal security,” Thayer said.

He added that Prime Minister Hun Sen, a one-time Khmer Rouge commander, likely considers a Cambodian officer corps trained by China to be more loyal to him than U.S.-trained officers.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen reacts to a jour
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen reacts to a journalist's question as he walks with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before the start of their bilateral meeting during the one-off summit of 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEA).

In 2015, the CPP made about 80 senior army and police commanders members of the party’s Central Committee to ensure loyalty of the security forces ahead of the general elections in July, according to Human Rights Watch, and some commanders have openly threatened violence against the opposition. Hun Sen’s two sons, both trained by the U.S. military, have also been placed in top positions in the army.

Last year, the CPP ended Cambodia’s two-decadelong experiment with multiparty democracy supported by Western donors. In November, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved and its leader jailed on treason charges. It also launched a harsh crackdown on independent media and civil society.

Critics say the CPP appears eager to avoid a repeat of the 2013 elections, when it narrowly beat the CNRP in a disputed vote, which prompted opposition protests that were crushed by security forces.

China's army soldiers attend the opening of milita
China's army soldiers attend the opening of military exercise in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, March 17, 2018.

?Balancing military power with neighbors

First conducted in 2016, the Cambodian-Chinese joint exercises are being held this year in Kompong Speu province with the largest number of soldiers yet: 280 Cambodian and 190 Chinese. Up to 100 Chinese tanks and armored personnel carriers used in the drills will be presented to Cambodia afterward, the CPP-affiliated newspaper The Khmer Times reported.

Cambodia’s defense and internal security expense makes up about 16 percent of the national budget, at close to $973 million, and has risen with an annual 15 percent in the past three years, according to the Finance Ministry figures. In recent years, China has been the main source of arms, through sales or donations, while also training and funding the Cambodian military.

The continued provision of Chinese military support is likely to make Cambodia’s army feel more secure in its dealings with its much more powerful neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, said Chheang Vannarith, a research associate with the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He also has advised Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense in the past.

Though neighborly relations are generally cordial, violent border disputes have erupted with Thailand over the border-hugging Preah Vihear Temple in 2008-2011. Vietnam has a complicated relationship with Cambodia, having invaded to oust the China-backed, Maoist Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and to install a new communist party elite that continues to rule until today as the CPP.

Cambodia's and China's army soldiers attend the op
Cambodia's and China's army soldiers attend the opening of military exercise in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, March 17, 2018.

?Complicating Cambodia’s regional relations

Experts said Cambodia’s tightening embrace with China, expanded with growing military cooperation, effectively puts it on the side of Beijing on contentious regional political issues. This could have repercussions for its international relations, but that is a price Phnom Penh appears willing to pay.

“In Cambodia’s view, China’s militarization of the South China Sea demonstrates that China will soon be the dominant military power in the region and all other countries will have to acknowledge this fact,” Southeast Asia expert Thayer said.

Vietnam and several regional countries, including the Philippines and Malaysia, seek to counter China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. and its close allies, such as Japan, are also attempting to contain Beijing’s ambitions at greater regional control.

“In Cambodia’s calculation, it is accruing favor in Beijing because of its support (in the South China Sea dispute). And Cambodia might one day have to call in a favor from China in the event of conflict with another country, either regional or extraregional,” Thayer said.

He added, however, that China’s expanding “military diplomacy” was not limited to Cambodia, as “China has military ties with all ASEAN members that vary in scope and depth.”

Chheang Vannarith said Vietnam wants to maintain its close historical ties with the Cambodian leadership and is likely concerned by China’s growing influence on the CPP government.

Both countries, he said, seek dominance in Cambodia, adding that, “in Cambodia’s foreign policy under the current ruling regime, there can’t be any exclusion of either Vietnam or China.”

Gen. Chhum Socheat, spokesman of the Cambodia’s Defense Ministry, denied that Chinese military support further consolidates Beijing’s influence in Cambodia and affects its foreign policy.

“The military aid from the People’s Republic of China to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces comes with no strings attached and no conditions. They assist us sincerely to strengthen and train the RCAF forces to higher capabilities in the tasks of national defense,” Socheat told VOA.

The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not reply to VOA’s request for comment on the joint exercises by time of publication.

During a visit to Cambodia by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in January, a joint communiqué highlighted China’s “willingness to provide necessary assistance to Cambodia in maintaining stability, realizing development and improving people’s livelihood.”

US military relations sour

Relations with the U.S. Army, meanwhile, have soured as the Hun Sen government increasingly relies on Beijing’s support and after dissolving all democratic opposition.

Following Cambodia’s wave of repression last year, Washington responded by ending several programs benefiting the government and the army.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said in February that military-to-military support was being reduced as “senior leaders within the Cambodian military have made troubling statements about using violence in relation to elections.” It added, however, that cooperation continues between the two countries for emergency relief preparedness, officer training and U.N. peacekeeping training.

An annual U.S. government report released this month, called the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, warned that Southeast Asian countries “will struggle to preserve foreign policy autonomy in the face of Chinese economic and diplomatic coercion.”

Pointing to the recent crackdown in Cambodia, the report said, “Having alienated Western partners, Hun Sen will rely on Beijing’s political and financial support, drawing Cambodia closer to China as a result.”

FILE - Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy deli
FILE - Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy delivers a speech to members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at a hotel in metro Manila, Philippines, June 29, 2016.

Former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy claimed in an interview with The Australian newspaper last month that the U.S. and other countries seeking to contain China’s aspirations at regional dominance should be worried by developments in Cambodia.

“China is securing more and more facilities, including military bases in Cambodia,” said Rainsy, who is in self-imposed exile as he faces charges in Cambodia. “This will strategically affect Japan, Vietnam, Australia and India. Australia should feel concerned because this could disrupt the balance of power in the whole region.”

Asked by VOA about these claims, Chum Socheat denied that China was securing military bases in Cambodia, saying, “Our constitution does not permit it.”