On Monday, news surfaced that Cambodia had suddenly cut its annual joint military exercise with the United States, which had already been in the planning stage and would have entered its eighth iteration this spring.
Temporary suspensions to bilateral military engagements do occur from time to time. But the bizarre reasons provided by Phnom Penh for this particular move have understandably failed to pass the smell test of most observers and raised the very suspicions about Cambodia’s alignments that the government was looking to avoid.
According to The Cambodia Daily, U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said on Monday that the United States had received word from Cambodia “postponing joint military training exercises in 2017 and 2018.” Other activities, including military exchanges and training programs, were not affected.
But it was the explanation from the Cambodian side about the temporary suspension that really raised eyebrows. Cambodian Defense Ministry spokesman Chuum Socheat said the exercise was called off in order to focus on more pressing matters. Elaborating on those pressing matters, he said that the military would have to go join the national police for an ongoing six-month anti-drug campaign, and that troops would also be needed in preparations for commune elections to be held on June 4 “to protect the good security and public order for the people.”
For those familiar with U.S.-Cambodia defense relations, that sure sounds like poppycock. As I’ve detailed previously, the annual exercise in question, Angkor Sentinel, is rather modest in scale and hasn’t exactly left the Cambodian military overstretched when it has occurred over the past seven years — including in 2013, when Cambodia held its last national election (See: “US, Cambodia Armies Launch Military Exercise”). And even if resourcing were an issue, it isn’t exactly clear why the suspension would be in effect through 2019, rather than the exercise simply being postponed to several months later when more military personnel would be freed up.
With those domestic reasons not sufficing, observers cannot be blamed for turning to grand designs tied to Cambodia’s foreign alignments to explain this sudden move. Some wondered whether Phnom Penh was sending a message to Washington about its democracy and human rights concerns in Cambodia, which have only risen with the opposition crackdown underway as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen approaches 2018 national elections that are likely to be closely contested.
It’s worth noting, though, that while the United States has downgraded military ties with Asian states before due to rights concerns, Washington had in fact been signaling through the end of last year that it was possible to have a good overall bilateral relationship with Cambodia in spite of disagreements in that area.
Others speculated that this might have to do with China. China and Cambodia have been strengthening their military ties – with the two sides holding their first-ever naval training exercise at the end of last year – and Beijing has been stepping up its assistance to Phnom Penh as the election approaches (See: “China, Cambodia to Launch Major Military Exercise ‘Golden Dragon’”). Might Beijing have leaned on Phnom Penh to nix drills with the United States in exchange for that assistance?
The idea of China making such deals with Cambodia has been taking root over the past few years, fueled by incidents such as ASEAN’s 2012 South China Sea breakdown in Phnom Penh during Cambodia’s chairmanship (See: “ASEAN’s Soul Searching After Phnom Penh”). And given the fact that Cambodia was becoming part of the U.S. Army’s future plans for the region, with its initial selection for prepositioning of equipment and the planned integration of Angkor Sentinel into the Pacific Pathways program, that might have raised some concerns in Beijing.
If this cancellation is indeed connected to Cambodia’s deepening ties to China, that would be troubling for Phnom Penh even if it is far from surprising. While all Southeast Asian countries desire good relations with Beijing, that ought not to come at the expense of them pursuing alignments with other nations as well. Indeed, it is this balance of relationships that help smaller countries like Cambodia maximize their security and prosperity while minimizing infringements to their autonomy. In that sense, putting too many eggs in the Chinese basket risks jeopardizing Cambodia’s own national interests even if it preserves those of the ruling party.
Chuum Socheat, the spokesman, denied that the move had anything to do with Cambodia’s relationships with the United States and China. But given the reasons he had actually given for the move, observers can be forgiven for not believing him. Apart from the substance of the matter, one hopes that the next time Cambodia announces such a move, government officials will at least spend a bit more time coming up with better excuses to avoid raising the very questions they may not want to answer.