Cambodia Suspends Annual Military Exercises With China

Cambodia’s government has decided to suspend its two-week military exercise with China next month, citing a need to cut spending amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite claims by the opposition that it did so to avoid angering the new administration in Washington, Voice of America reported.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service last week, Defense Minister Tea Banh said the fourth annual “Golden Dragon” exercise will be canceled this year due to heavy flooding in 2020 that devastated the country’s infrastructure and food supply. He also pointed to the country’s ongoing battle with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and “several other problems” the government still needs to resolve.

The joint exercise, originally scheduled for March 13-27, sees around 3,000 Cambodian and Chinese troops take part in live ammunition drills—including training on the use of tanks, armored vehicles, and demining equipment—at the 70th Brigade Military Training School in Kampot province’s Chum Kiri district. Ties between the two countries have strengthened in recent years amid growing Western criticism of Cambodia’s human rights record.

“We are dealing with these difficulties. [The flooding] severely affected the well-being and livelihood of the people and is expected to result in more poverty and hardship,” Tea Banh said. “So, based on this, we have suspended the military exercise.”

In October last year, tropical storms brought torrential rains that inundated much of Cambodia, triggering flooding that destroyed bridges and roads, affected hundreds of thousands of people in 19 provinces, and left nearly 40 dead.

Cambodia, to which China has pledged to deliver 1 million doses of its Sinopharm vaccination, has seen a total of 476 COVID-19 cases since January 2020 and no deaths. The drills were held last year despite widespread concerns about potentially infected Chinese soldiers bringing the virus into the country—concerns that were dismissed at the time by Tea Banh.

This week, social development researcher Seng Sary told RFA that Cambodia’s decision to suspend the Golden Dragon exercise was “long overdue” because the nation is not involved in any conflicts.

“Exercises are part of strengthening the capacity of the military, but at this stage it is good that we are suspending them due to national budget constraints,” he said.