Drills Highlight Deepest Chinese Military Ties in Decades

A nine-day joint Chinese-Cambodian military exercise involving 1,000 soldiers kicked off on Thursday, signaling the closest ties between the two countries’ militaries since the Khmer Rouge was in power.

“We did them before, but it was small scale, like when we trained with Chinese warships on humanitarian rescues, ” Royal Cambodia Armed Forces (RCAF) Deputy Commander Ith Sarath said on Thursday. “This year, we are doing it on a big scale.”

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Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun, left, takes part in the opening day of joint military exercises with China. (Khem Sovannara)

Relations between Cambodia’s government and China’s communist party were fraught for decades due to China’s backing of the Khmer Rouge, a trend that slowly reversed as the regime’s holdouts dropped their arms, and more rapidly as Beijing has recently poured money into Phnom Penh.

The “Golden Dragon 2016” exercises will involve 500 troops from each of the countries in natural disaster and humanitarian drills held at Cambodia’s main military base, in Kompong Speu province, according to General Sarath.

Chinese President Xi Jinping provided an almost $15 million grant to Cambodia’s military in his visit in October. That money and the training are further proof of deepening ties, according to RCAF Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun.

The weeklong event promotes good relations, he said, though neither he nor Gen. Sarath would confirm the details of the drills.

Cambodia’s military spending has soared from $75.7 million in 2006 to $464 million next year in a bid to modernize its military and, some say, secure the loyalty of soldiers through higher salaries.

Gen. Sarath maintained the drills did not signal a geopolitical shift.

“We do not just do military exercises with China; we do them with the U.S. too,” he said.

The exercises are notable “only inasmuch that Cambodia and China are increasingly close over the past two or three years in terms of defense and military,” according to Jon Grevatt, regional industry analyst at defense and security magazine IHS Jane’s.

“We’ve seen in the past few years the benefits of that,” he said: trainings, defense procurements and technology transfers from China in exchange for Cambodia’s support in the South China Sea territorial dispute.

That support puts Cambodia at odds with the U.S., which also uses joint military exercises to engage with Cambodia. “Whether that will continue under [U.S. president-elect Donald] Trump, I don’t know.”

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