JUST days before the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, Cambodia announced that it was cancelling its joint military exercises with the United States, known as Angkor Sentinel, until at least 2019.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat attributed the decision to two key reasons. First, the military was too busy enforcing a national anti-drug campaign, which was launched last month following a visit from Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte.
Second, with commune elections scheduled for June, the armed forces are needed to “protect the good security and public order for the people,” he told reporters.
There has been some question as to the honesty of these reasons. Past events, including the 2013 general election, were not met with a particular strain on the military capacity and, if elections were truly the issue, it would be best to maintain strategic ties with the U.S. by postponing the exercises until later in the year once the elections are complete, rather than cancel them for two years.
The revelations of cancelling the military exercises also came in the same week as Prime Minister Hun Sen made his feelings known on former President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“The policies toward Asia, Asia-Pacific of President Obama has brought complications to the Asian region,” he said at a panel discussion titled “Manufacturing Identity: Is ASEAN a Community Yet?”
“I honestly say that I am unhappy to criticize the (U.S) policy of returning to Asia and I praise the policy of the new President Duterte of the Philippines,” he said, referring to Duterte’s announcement in October that he was “separating” from the U.S. to join China and Russia.
Despite praising Trump in the past and favouring him to win the election, it appears that Mr. Hun Sen will be joining a number of other Southeast Asian nations in their pivot away from the U.S. towards China.
The competition between the United States and China for regional influence has been mounting of late with China make a convincing play to woo Asia-Pacific nations over to their side. And so far, it appears to be working.
“President Duterte has put the Philippines’ policy into reverse. Prime Minister Najib (Razak) of Malaysia is currying favour with Beijing. And Vietnam has just sent its party leader to Beijing to seek reassurances that China will act towards Vietnam with restraint,” Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor and Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, told the Cambodia Daily.
Cambodia’s cancellation of joint military exercises sends a clear message as to where their allegiances will lie going forward should they be forced to choose. A point that is compounded by the fact that it came just weeks after Cambodia hosted 500 Chinese soldiers for the largest military exercise in decades.
While it is in the best interests of Cambodia to maintain ties with both Washington and Beijing, if the mounting tit-for-tat hostility between the two escalates further, Cambodia may be hard pressed to achieve this without risking losing favour with China.
Should it come down to an either/or situation, Hun Sen will likely choose the path that is most likely to secure his position; and that is China.
As has been shown in the past, China is a useful ally for Cambodia to have and vice-versa.
Following Cambodia’s successful campaign to force the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to retract a strongly worded statement towards China on South China Sea disputes, Beijing promised Phnom Penh an additional US$600 million in aid and loans.
But while a move towards China and alienating itself from the U.S. may benefit the ruling party, it is unlikely to benefit the nation as a whole.
“China will provide more economic and military aid in forms that buttress the power of the Cambodian People’s Party,” John Ciorciari, director of the International Policy Center at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, told the Cambodia Daily.
“Cambodia will reciprocate with preferential access to resources, support in international forums, and perhaps with expanded naval access at Kampong Sam [Preah Sihanouk province]. This may benefit Cambodia’s leaders but will back the country further into a diplomatic corner and make domestic political reform even more challenging.”