Cambodia Courts China to Fend Off Western Pressures

Cambodian economy received a much-needed stimulus during Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Beijing in January 2019. President Xi Jinping announced that his country would increase bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2023 and committed $587.6 million in aid over the next three years. The above initiatives are significant given that Cambodia has been under pressure from the US and European Union over issues of democracy. In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ordered dissolution of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP),the main opposition party, for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government. Consequently, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen won all 125 seats in the July 2018 elections.

Besides several other smaller deals, China also announced investments in building a motorway from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, rebuild the damaged National Route 7, invest in clean water projects and restore several temples in Cambodia. Apparently, Prime Minister Hun Sen and President Xi Jinping were careful not to announce any mega infrastructure projects fearing that these would invite international concern like the other Chinese initiated projects under the Belt Road Initiative.

Cambodia came under intense scrutiny earlier in January after three PLA Navy ships of the 30th Chinese naval escorting fleet made port calls at Sihanoukville. There were speculations that a naval base was being planned at a site where a developer from China was building a US$ 3.8 billion tourism project on 45,000 hectares of land. Furthermore, there was a tacit approval from Cambodia to set up a military base on land concession in Koh Kong, similar to Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

Cambodia is strategically located astride the international shipping lane, which passes through the Straits of Malacca and can offer access and basing facilities for forward deployed maritime forces. Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen had dismissed similar rumours after he received a letter from US Vice-President Mike Pence on the issue of Chinese naval bases on Cambodian soil and assured that Cambodian constitution “bans the presence of foreign troops or military bases in its territory … whether naval forces, infantry forces or air forces;” however, it welcomes warships from friendly countries such as India and Russia including those from the US.

China and the US have proactive engagement strategies for Cambodia; the former has chosen to supply military hardware and in June 2018, Chinese defence ministry announced a $100 million military grant aid to upgrade Cambodia’s military sector. The latter has focused on military education and training for the overall capacity development of Cambodian military.

Chinese military assistance has at least three advantages for Cambodia that range from soft loans for military hardware, and funds for developing military infrastructure that usually do not attract penalties due to issues of democracy, human-rights, etc. As quid pro quo, Cambodia has supported China on the South China Sea issue by distancing itself from the disputes saying that it is a bilateral issue between the contending parties, and ASEAN may not have role to play in the South China Sea.

Since 2016, Cambodia and China have held joint military exercises which include live-fire dills, mock tank battles, and anti-terrorism and emergency relief training. Interestingly, the Cambodian Army cancelled ‘Angkor Sentinel’, a planned joint military exercise with the US Army that had been held regularly for the last eight years. Likewise, the Cambodian Navy canceled a long-running US Navy program that provided humanitarian assistance in the country.

The US has courted Cambodia and the defence relationship is marked by US navy ships making port calls, training exercises such as the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) since 2010, and visits by military personnel. Perhaps what merits attention is the incremental growth in CARAT from port calls by US Navy ships to training exercises at Ream Naval Base, and Cambodian Navy’s involvement in the ‘Pacific Partnership’, a US led humanitarian and civil assistance exercise to advance multilateral cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. These were significant initiatives and suggested that both sides may have put behind the May 1975 SS Mayaguez incident and were rebuilding military relations.

Cambodia has been an arena of competition between major global powers (US and the Soviet Union during Cold War), regional powers (China and Vietnam) and now between US and China who have attempted to influence the country’s politics and security. The country has also had its share of hostilities and internal conflicts, which had an impact on its defence posture. Consequently, Cambodian military has inherited several deficiencies and emerged as a poorly equipped and less trained force. It is therefore not surprising that China has preferred an aggressive strategy to supply military hardware is the hope that Cambodia can offer facilities to the PLA Navy to ensure free flow of commerce through the Straits of Malacca.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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