A US sailor shows Cambodian counterparts his nuclear, chemical and biological protective equipment in 2007. Source: Wikimedia
Cambodia defence ministry says it has suspended military exercises with US forces, amid speculation that the move reflects the growing influence of Beijing over the impoverished kingdom.
Elections in June would occupy the government’s attention and prevent the Cambodian armed forces taking part in the Angkor Sentinel exercises which normally take place in the spring, ministry spokesman General Chhum Socheat said, denying that it was as a result of closer cooperation with China.
“Our activities will be reduced, we have a lot of security work to do,” Chhum Socheat said. “We have never had any problem with the US,” he added, demonstrating considerable historical amnesia.
US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said the exercises for 2017 and 2018 had been cancelled but that military exchanges and training programmes were not affected. The exercises are designed to prepare for natural disasters and humanitarian work while also building military cooperation.
“Joint military exercises benefit both of our nations by enhancing our ability to work together to combat maritime piracy, protect trade and shipping routes, deter terrorists and provide humanitarian assistance during natural disasters,” Raman told AP. “The United States will look for additional ways that we can cooperate in these areas.”
Beijing is increasingly dominant in Phnom Penh while the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has raised doubts about Washington’s ongoing regional commitment. Trump’s rhetoric on China has been undiplomatic, as he has already caused disquiet over the uneasy relationship with Taiwan and the one-China policy.
China is Cambodia’s most important ally and Phnom Penh has demonstrated its willingness to do Beijing’s diplomatic bidding, repeatedly scuppering Asean attempts to adopt a united stance over Chinese expansion into the South China Sea.
China held the unprecedented joint “Golden Dragon” naval exercise with Cambodia last month while Cambodia uses Chinese military training and equipment, including jeeps, rocket launchers and helicopters. China had strong ties with the brutal Khmer Rouge dictatorship of Pol Pot, doing much to prop up the nihilistic regime between 1975 and 1979, when it was ousted by a Vietnamese invasion.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the longest serving heads of government in the world with more than 30 years of quasi-democratic rule, is facing more of a challenge in this year’s municipal elections and the general election due in 2018.