Last week, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen paid a visit to the Czech Republic as part of a wider Europe tour. Though the visit itself had a wide-ranging focus, it also put the spotlight on the defense aspect of the bilateral relationship amid wider domestic and regional developments.
Cambodia and the Czech Republic have a defense relationship as part of their wider bilateral ties, first established back in 1956. Defense ties have included aspects such as exchanges, visits, as well as some defense equipment, with a case in point being the five Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros basic trainer/light attack jet aircraft delivered beginning in the mid-1990s to the the Royal Cambodian Air Force. In recent years, both sides have discussed ways to advance security collaboration still further, with areas including demining and airspace protection.
Last week, the defense aspect of the relationship was in focus with Hun Sen’s visit to the Czech Republic. Hun Sen led a Cambodian delegation to Prague from October 13-14 as part of a wider European trip that also included Hungary and Bulgaria, designed in part to cultivate ties with European states that are more friendly to Cambodia. The trip came as the European Union assesses its ties with Phnom Penh through various steps including a decision on possible withdrawal of the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement, now expected early next year.
While the agenda of the visit itself was wide-ranging, the defense aspect of the relationship more specifically was also in focus with the visit. In the field of defense equipment, for instance, Hun Sen said following his meeting with Czech counterpart Andrej Babis on October 14 that he had “discussed the possibility” of buying three or four new L-39s to be used as patrolling. And Babis, for his part, also noted “the possibility of cooperation in the defense industry” as being an area of cooperation.
The fact that this cooperation is being advanced comes as no surprise. The L-39s that Cambodia previously bought are aging and require upgrades or replacements. And in an environment where Cambodia is looking to shore up ties with the Czech Republic, it would make sense for Phnom Penh to at least entertain the possibility of advances in the defense realm as well amid discussions in other realms including economics and people-to-people relations.
How exactly this will translate into reality remains to be seen. For instance, with respect to L-39s, Hun Sen’s general comments, including the lack of a final number, suggested that specifics remained to be worked out. The Phnom Penh Post also noted separately that though defense ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat acknowledged that the jets were necessary for national defense, he was unable to comment on the very specifics of the purchase that would matter, including pricing.
Nonetheless, as we see Cambodia adjust its foreign relations, the relationship with countries like the Czech Republic will continue to be important to watch, including on the defense side. Though domestic changes in Hun Sen’s Cambodia have created challenges for its foreign policy, the government remains bent on advancing ties with countries where possible.