Breaking further from traditional partners, Cambodia has aborted a planned military exercise with Australia, a defense official said on Tuesday, tilting the country’s allegiances once again toward China.
Having now suspended joint drills with both the U.S. and Australia, all Cambodian military exercises are being supported by China, the official said.
“We have suspended exercises with Australia for the moment,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat. “We have suspended exercises with many countries because the government wants to gather the armed forces to maintain security during the upcoming election.”
Though General Socheat would not list the countries with which joint drills have been suspended, the military has notably canceled plans with the U.S., but not with China.
In December, Cambodia and China conducted their biggest-ever joint exercises, drilling 1,000 troops at Cambodia’s main military base in Kompong Speu province as part of “Golden Dragon.” The following month, Cambodia called off its regular “Angkor Sentinel” exercises with the U.S.
Gen. Socheat said the U.S. and Australia had not cut their funding for joint drills. Rather, the suspensions were being driven entirely by Cambodia’s needs, he said. All drills are now funded at least in part by China, he added. “I wish to state that every exercise is under the sponsorship of China.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan would not explain the reasoning behind the canceled exercises, simply saying that the Defense Ministry had “many reasons,” and denied there were political motivations.
“Everyone’s our friend,” Mr. Siphan said. “In terms of the rebalancing between superpowers, we don’t engage with geopolitics.”
John Blaxland, a professor of international security at Australian National University, disagreed.
“They have been under considerable pressure from China to distance themselves from the USA and, to a lesser extent, Australia, for some time now,” Mr. Blaxland said in an email. “The signal it sends to Australia, the USA and the other ASEAN states is clear and resounding.”
“Australia demonstrably values ASEAN and finds disheartening Cambodia’s distancing from Australia,” he added. “Australia invested heavily in the Cambodian peace plan in 1993. Its bona fide credentials in the region are second to none.”
Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor and Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said there were several possible reasons why the moves were important to Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of upcoming elections.
“Hun Sen is making a pre-emptive strike against countries expected to be critical of how the communal elections are run,” Mr. Thayer said in an email.
“In other words, if there is marked government interference in the communal elections, certain countries can be expected to make diplomatic and political protests and in some cases cancel military-to-military cooperation as a sanction.”
Soldiers—both foreign and domestic—may constitute a potential risk to Mr. Hun Sen’s rule, he added.
“Less likely, Hun Sen fears the emergence of an ‘anti-China’ group in the officer corps and wants to cut off their conduits to external militaries,” Mr. Thayer said. “Least likely, Hun Sen does not want foreign military personnel inside Cambodia during the run to and after the commune elections for fear they might be caught up in or intervene in domestic politics.”
For Australia, the cancellation of the joint exercises meant losing a key bridge to the Cambodian government, Mr. Thayer said.
“Military-to-military cooperation is one conduit for Australia to gain an insight into and possibly shape or influence Cambodian policies,” he said. “The loss of this conduit will reduce one major means of influence on the Hun Sen regime.”