Weeks after holding its largest-ever joint military exercises with China, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has canceled Cambodia’s routine joint military exercises with the U.S. for the next two years, officials confirmed on Monday.
“The United States has received a formal communication from the Royal Government of Cambodia postponing joint military training exercises in 2017 and 2018,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said in an email.
“Other activities, including military exchanges and training programs, are not affected.”
Cambodian Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said the routine Angkor Sentinel exercise was called off in order to focus on more pressing matters.
“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,” he said.
“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,” General Socheat added. “All the postponing is temporary, so wait until those issues end, then we will resume.”
Gen. Socheat said the decision was not meant as a diplomatic message to the U.S., which often draws Mr. Hun Sen’s ire for its public criticism of human rights abuses and political oppression at the hands of the ruling party.
“The relationship between our country and other countries is normal,” he said. “We have no dispute with U.S, China or any countries in the world.”
Ou Virak, head of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank, said that neither of the Defense Ministry’s reasons were particularly convincing.
“Certainly not with the drug thing. That should not have anything to do with military exercises,” he said. “With the election, you don’t need the military to hold an election.”
With Cambodia inviting about 500 Chinese soldiers to the country for a nine-day military exercise early last month, it appears as if military relations were the latest part of a broad shift toward Beijing, Mr. Virak said. There has been a recent upsurge in Chinese military support, development aid and cooperation with Cambodia.
“Who knows what China put on the table. Did they demand anything about the U.S. in exchange for their support?” Mr. Virak asked.
“Having a relationship with China is not a bad thing, but you need to balance that with relations with other militaries such as the U.S., Europe, and other Asian countries,” such as Japan and India, he added.