Cambodia China Military

A Cambodian army soldier looks at Chinese military vehicles displayed before a hand over ceremony at a military air base in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2010. Pic: AP.

On January 23, Moeung Samphan, Secretary of State at the Cambodian Defense Ministry, and General Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, signed a military cooperation agreement under which 12 Chinese-built Zhi-9 helicopters will be delivered to the Royal Cambodian Army. As part of the deal, the People’s Liberation Army will also continue to provide military training to the Cambodian military.

A previous agreement under which the PLA would continue to deliver military training to Cambodian armed forces was signed in May last year, while back in 2010 Beijing had donated 250 jeeps and trucks to Cambodia’s army.

China is not the only nation providing training to the Cambodian armed forces – the United States and Australia, among others, do the same – and the recent deal is obviously limited. It does, however, highlight the growing ties between Beijing and Phnom Penh.

According to the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), China is now by far the biggest foreign investor in Cambodia. On its website, the Council shows that in 2011 Cambodia attracted $1.15 billion in Chinese investments, with an increase of 71 percent from $694 million a year earlier. From 1994 to 2011, Chinese investments totaled $8.866 billion dollars. By comparison, South Korea, the second biggest investor in the same period of time, stopped at little more $4 billion, less than China invested in 2008 alone.

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Xinhua, China’s chief news agency, reports that Chinese investments have focused on “property development, mineral business and processing plants, motorcycle assembly factories, gold mining, rice mill and garment factories.”

Bilateral trade figures have dramatically improved, too. According to Xinhua, in 2011 bilateral trade between Cambodia and China amounted to 2.5 billion U.S. dollars, a staggering 73.5 percent increase from a year earlier.

Cozy relations with Beijing, however, have also put the Cambodian government under significant pressure, especially due to disputes over the South China Sea, whose islands are claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. The Cambodian government finds itself in an awkward position as other ASEAN countries, and especially Vietnam and the Philippines, see it as a close ally of the Chinese government ready to act to the detriment of their interests.

In July 2012, a clash occurred while discussing the Code Of Conduct, a document which was supposed to prevent conflicts among members. The participants could not find an agreement on whether to mention the South China Sea in the final communiqué, with Cambodia and the Philippines struggling with each other. As a result, for the first time in 45 years, no final statement was issued and, most importantly, the whole affair turned out to be lost chance to work on a set of rules to avoid future clashes.

In November last year, tensions again flared up during the ASEAN summit hosted by Cambodia in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian side argued that members had reached a consensus not to internationalize – read “not to call in outside power in general and the United States in particular” – the South China Sea issue, but Philippines authorities contended that such a point was never agreed upon. According to Reuters, Philippine President Benigno Aquino stated that “there were several views expressed [..] on ASEAN unity which we did not realize would be translated into an ASEAN consensus,” and added that “this was not our understanding. The ASEAN route is not the only route for us. As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interests.”

Given such a background, it is not a surprise that the recent military deal attracted the media’s attention. The Bangkok Post, for one, has written that while there has not been any formal reaction from neighboring countries, “Hanoi [..] is likely to view the military training of the Cambodian army with major skepticism, if not outright opposition”. The article also contends that “for Thailand, any upgrade to the Cambodian army will almost certainly result in both increasing hostility from the ultra-nationalist ‘patriots’ involved in the dispute surrounding the Preah Vihear temple. There are likely to be calls from the military to upgrade Thai forces facing Cambodia, the only country with which Thailand has had armed conflicts in recent years.”