Last month, Cambodia 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. As I indicated then, the reasons offered by Phnom Penh for the temporary suspension were far from convincing, leading to predictable speculation about the role of China in the move despite denials all around (See: “Why Did Cambodia Just Cut US Military Drills?”).
U.S. officials had been pretty quiet about the move, beyond clarifying that it in fact had occurred. But this week, The Cambodia Daily published excerpts from a recording it obtained featuring U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt speaking to journalists at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, where he provided his thoughts on the development.
Heidt reportedly said that he was “disappointed” by Cambodia’s decision. He also added that it was Cambodia who would “pay the price” for the move, rather than the United States.
“So to me it was disappointing, but I do think at the end of the day it is the Cambodian people and the Cambodian military who pay the price for that decision, not really the United States,” he was quoted as saying.
Irrespective of the veracity of the recording, Heidt’s reported comments do raise a broader question: who loses when Cambodia cancels a U.S. military exercise like this one?
Few would contest Heidt’s claim that Cambodia would pay a price for that move. Countries, especially those with limited capabilities like Cambodia, cherish the opportunity to interact and exercise with the world’s most advanced military. Cambodia no doubt recognizes this. And that is why U.S.-Cambodia military exercises – from Angkor Sentinel which has just been nixed to CARAT Cambodia, both of which have been through seven iterations – have gradually increased in sophistication following arrangements worked out between the two sides.
That said, one should not overstate the price that is being paid. The scale and scope of U.S. military exercises with Cambodia are quite limited, both on their own as well as relative to other neighboring Southeast Asian states which bring additional regional value. (Phnom Penh does not host any key regional multilateral exercises, as U.S. ally Thailand does; or house important U.S. regional capabilities as Singapore has been doing since the end of the Cold War.) That is partly due to rights concerns on the U.S. side, which place additional scrutiny on even the modest collaboration that goes on now, let alone expanding that even further. Those concerns have only grow with the ongoing opposition by the regime led by Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of national elections in 2018.
It is also important not to understate the cost of this to the United States, even if it is significantly lesser than what it is to Cambodia. If Washington’s goal is to build a “principled security network,” as U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told those of us present at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, then it means broadening and deepening ties with countries that are central to, on the margins of, and sometimes even outside of this network (See: “US Hits Right Note at Shangri-La With Principled Security Network”). That’s not just a hypothetical. For instance, as I have pointed out before, 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.
Additionally, one of the most underrated benefits that United States derives from these sorts of interactions is the cultivation of personal relationships with Asian militaries, and Cambodia is no exception. Though that may seem like a rather ‘soft’ advantage relative to others that more directly boost U.S. military presence or enhance the sharing of capabilities, it is rare that U.S. military personnel who are actually involved in these engagements do not stress the importance of this point. At times policymakers only realize the impact of this once links have been severed over years, as happened previously with U.S.-Indonesia defense ties for example.
“These personal experiences are what bind us together and establish the foundation so our countries can work together on a range of other shared interests in the future,” Army Maj. Gen. Todd McCaffrey, the deputy commander of U.S. Army Pacific, said in his reflections after last year’s Angkor Sentinel exercise. And contrary to the U.S.-China geopolitical lens through which some observers see every U.S. military engagement, Headt himself correctly noted after Angkor Sentinel 2016 that the interactions by both sides would help them better understand each other and play a role in helping address shared common challenges including in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, violent extremism, and emerging diseases.
Finally, just like the costs to the United States need to be evaluated relative to what it gains from other regional partners, so too should the cost to Cambodia be similarly assessed compared to what sorts of interactions it is having with other states too of late, including China, in order to gain a proper appreciation for context. Though China has been Cambodia’s top trading partner, investor, and military donor for years, both sides have only recently been developing the exercises part of their defense relationship just as Phnom Penh heads into important elections next year. The two sides held their first-ever naval training exercise at the end of last year, and China has also been stepping up its assistance to Cambodia (See: “China, Cambodia to Launch Major Military Exercise ‘Golden Dragon’”).
This is not to suggest that Cambodia sees its defense relationship with China as gradually replacing the one it has with the United States. Indeed, given that Beijing still significantly lags Washington’s military capabilities and has no problem engaging with countries irrespective of their rights records, that would very much be an apples to oranges comparison. Rather, the point is that the Cambodian government led by Hun Sen evaluates the costs and benefits of its defense relationship with one country within the context of the broader interactions it enjoys with other militaries as well as the domestic situation within which the regime finds itself in.
Cambodia is not alone in this either. Similar dynamics can be seen with other Asian states that have much more mature defense relationships with the United States, but have seen changes in their rights situations domestically and a bit of flux with respect to their geopolitical alignments, with post-coup Thailand being the most obvious one (See: “Exclusive: Managing the Strained U.S.-Thailand Alliance”). And in all these cases, costs and benefits are much more complex things to evaluate than they might initially appear.