Currently, Cambodia’s foreign policy faces significant challenges amid great power rivalry for regional influence. Cambodia’s recent decision to postpone the annual Angkor Sentinel joint military exercise with the US came as a surprise because the decision had been made just days before the inauguration of new US President Donald Trump. Trump’s uncertain foreign policy had been predicted to take strong measures against China in relation to the maritime disputes in the region. Meanwhile, China’s economic, military, and strategic influence over Cambodia continues to grow. It is clear that the US has been unable to compete with China for influence in Cambodia. China has become Cambodia’s largest foreign investor as well as its largest economic and military benefactor in the last decade. The recent and routine high-level official defense visits between China and Cambodia highlight the strong cooperation which is widely seen to be at the expense of the US and other important defense partners such as Australia.
The annual Angkor Sentinel joint military manoeuvres between Cambodia and the US have been conducted continuously since 2010. It is an annual bilateral exercise sponsored by the US Army Pacific Command and hosted by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), focusing on providing humanitarian assistance and responding to disaster relief operations. At the official opening of the Angkor Sentinel exercise early 2016, Julie Chung, the charge d’affairs at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh stated that; “I believe the Angkor Sentinel exercise that begins today showcases some of the best kinds of things militaries accomplish for their nations and citizens.” US Army Major General Edward Dorman III — Commander of the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in charge of the exercise — stated that “exercises like this one are critical to our regional stability and security … when we join together, train together, and grow together now, we ensure that we are prepared together for whatever the future may bring.” At that time, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen regarded the exercise as “a symbol of the strong military ties between the US and Cambodia.”
Strategic rivalry for influence between China and the US, and the ongoing tensions between China and the ASEAN claimant states over the South China Sea have pushed Cambodia even closer to the Chinese sphere of influence. China has emerged as Cambodia’s most significant military partner. In recent years, China has provided considerable military training and helped Cambodia’s military to significantly expand its training capabilities with the provision of military instructors, considerable military training facilities, and Chinese language teachers. China has also provided Cambodia with USD 60 million in soft loans to buy nine patrol boats and financed Cambodia’s upgraded naval base in Ream. Cambodia also received a USD 195 million loan from China for the purchase of 12 Chinese Z-9 military helicopters. Beijing has also provided military trucks, spare parts, and other equipment.
For China, Cambodia is strategically important as its geopolitical location allows for security and oversight in the South China Sea, especially for securing the Chinese claim on the disputed Spratly Islands and their natural resources. Burgos and Ear argue that if conflict occurs, “China may need Cambodia as a strategic, sea-accessible location from which to launch a response.” As Geoff Wade, an expert on Asia, claims, this is part of the Chinese network of port investments in Asia, which include Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia.
By comparison, US military aid to Cambodia is relatively small and has often been withheld as a result of political tensions. This was evident when Cambodia decided to suspend some military cooperation with the US in 2013, after US congressmen criticized and urged Cambodia to investigate election irregularities. The US has provided military aid, equipment, and technical assistance worth USD 4.5 million since 2006.
Cambodia should incorporate diversity in its foreign policy with as many countries as it can for widening and meeting its national interests.
The US has also provided support in a wide range of military cooperation areas to improve the RCAF’s capability in humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and maritime security, as well as to broaden Cambodia’s counterterrorism strategy. Unlike the Chinese approach, all of this assistance is subject to strict conditions and if it is assessed that the principle of democracy has been violated, its provision could immediately cease. This happened in July 1997 when the internal political turmoil in the Cambodian government resulted in the US suspending all aid programs, including military assistance, because the US considered the actions of the coalition government to be against the principles of democracy and human rights.
Although there is still some frustration and concern with Cambodia’s human rights record, the US has continued to support Cambodia with a wide range of assistance, including notably, deploying the RCAF in UN peacekeeping operations which align with Cambodia’s strategic interest in promoting the country’s prestige on the international stage. The joint exercises with the US since 2010 have been seen as serving Cambodia’s national interest in regard to RCAF’s UN deployment. The exercise has played an important role in not only strengthening the RCAF’s capability in the areas of UN peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and professionalism, but also improving military-to-military cooperation between the two countries. According to US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman: “Joint military exercises benefit both of our nations by enhancing our ability to work together to combat maritime piracy, protect trade and shipping routes, deter terrorists, and provide humanitarian assistance during natural disasters.”
It is important not to underestimate the practical reality of Cambodia’s foreign policy trajectory and its foreign interests in the context of the US-China competition for regional influence. As Chheang Vannarith, Cambodian scholar points out, Cambodia’s primary national interests are centred on sovereignty and territorial integrity, security and political stability, economic development and poverty reduction, and identity-image building. Therefore, Cambodia is in need of assistance from friendly countries for the actualization of its reform program in the face of mounting challenges. As a small and poor state in the region, Cambodia usually makes practical choices for its people by seeking to capitalize on its relations with China and the US, among others, which are best suited its interests.
The Cambodian government recognizes the importance of assistance from the international community for the RCAF’s future development. The assistance from friendly countries for the RCAF reform program in areas such as downsizing the defense forces, human resource training, technological development, cooperative efforts against crime and international terrorism, and participation in multinational disaster relief operations are vital for developing the professionalism of the RCAF.
The Defense White Papers and other RCAF policy documents regard international military cooperation as crucial for the improvement of the RCAF’s professionalism as set out in the strategic objectives of the RCAF.
According to the Defence and Strategic Review 2013 published by the Ministry of National Defence of Cambodia: “The RCAF must continue to strengthen and expand cooperation with security partners in the region and in the international arena by using bilateral and multilateral mechanisms based on unbiased political or ideological grounds and in the spirit of mutual interests.” The Constitution clearly states that “Cambodia reserves the right to receive foreign assistance by way of military equipment and training of its armed forces and other assistance for self defense and to maintain public order and security within its territory” (DWP, 2000). Accordingly, the RCAF has received military assistance from all friendly countries around the world without any consideration of political conditions by those countries. For example, the US and China are the major military assistance providers for the RCAF, even though the two countries have different strategic interests.
In short, clearly, the US and China as well as other countries have been crucial players in contributing to the reform policy of the RCAF. It is also clear that China and the US have different policies toward the kingdom which could eventually lead to a strategic dilemma for Cambodia in managing these relationships without compromising its sovereignty and integrity. Cambodia should incorporate diversity in its foreign policy with as many countries as it can for widening and meeting its national interests. As a small and poor state, it is necessary for Cambodia to adhere its policy to a rule-based international order by supporting regional groupings such as ASEAN and other regional forums for the country’s autonomy and economic prosperity.