Cambodia’s decision to nix military exercises with US leaves many scratching their heads

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: January 19, 2017 | Cambodia

Defence ministry officials have cited the country’s current ‘war on drugs’ and its upcoming commune elections as reasons for diverting resources from the annual Angkor Sentinel exercises

Cambodian soldiers (R), stand with US soldiers (L), during the opening ceremony of a multi-national peacekeeping exercise in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia
Cambodian soldiers (R), stand with US soldiers (L), during the opening ceremony of a multi-national peacekeeping exercise in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, 17 July 2010. Photo: EPA/MAK REMISSA

Earlier this week, Cambodia informed the US it would postpone their annual joint military exercises for the next two years, leading to speculation that the Southeast Asian country was putting more of its stock in regional hegemon China.

Cambodian Ministry of National Defence spokesman Chhum Socheath said the Angkor Sentinel exercises would be cancelled in order to allocate troops and resources toward the country’s six-month ‘war on drugs’ and its upcoming commune elections.

“We postponed because we are busy with a six-month national anti-drug campaign. So our forces must go to join with the National Police in order to crack down against drug crime around the country,” Socheath told The Cambodia Daily.

“Second, it’s involved with next commune election that will be held on June 4. So we need to collect the forces to protect the good security and public order for the people,” Socheath added.

The announcement comes just weeks after Cambodia held its biggest-ever joint military exercises with China, and months after Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Cambodia in October, signing 31 agreements, including $89m in debt forgiveness, $238m in soft loans and $15m in military aid.

And while Phnom Penh has staunchly denied that cancelling the exercises indicates a realignment toward China, some analysts are not so sure.

“Obviously, this is what they would say, but actions speak louder than words,” said Sophal Ear, professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, and author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest Is Reshaping the World.

“Given that we’re in our eighth year of Angkor Sentinel, this seems odd,” he added. “But the Kingdom of Wonder is never want of mysteries.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen often lambasts the US for its critique of corruption, political oppression and human rights abuses in Cambodia. But as the US prepares to swear in Donald Trump as its 45th president on Friday, a man who has advocated for a more isolationist approach to US foreign affairs, Cambodia’s ruling party could see Washington’s role as a watchdog in Southeast Asia diminish.

“There are some benefits, possibly, to the new administration in the US for Hun Sen – the administration is likely to be less critical of Hun Sen on human rights issues,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“So, I am not sure why the Hun Sen government would go now for a realignment, rather than waiting and seeing how things turn out in the new US-Cambodia relationship after January.”

Still, Phnom Penh’s declaration that it would divert military resources to domestic issues raises other questions, namely its militarisation of matters related to public health and the democratic process.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is waging his own deadly war on drugs that has left more than 6,000 dead in his country, made a state visit to Cambodia in December. Since then, Cambodia has kicked off its own campaign, resulting in hundreds of arrests.

In the run-up to Cambodia’s commune elections in June and general elections in 2018, this could easily be seen as an attempt to win votes through ‘tough’ governance.

“Launching a war on drugs is what [former US president Richard] Nixon did in the 1970s,” Occidental College’s Ear said. “You have to find a boogeyman to get people scared and voting for you.”