United States personnel prepare a coffin at the Phnom Penh International Airport during a repatriation ceremony on April 2, 2014. Remains believed to belong to missing US military service members found in Cambodia's Kampong Cham province were repatriated back to the US in a ceremony. The US Embassy said that ninety American soldiers were originally missing in Cambodia from the Vietnam Conflict, thirty-seven individuals have been recovered and identified, while 53 remain missing. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

On January 16, Cambodia announced that its annual joint military exercises with the United States, known as Angkor Sentinel, will be canceled until at least 2019. The surprise move came just days before the inauguration of US President Donald Trump and underscored Cambodia’s ever-growing economic and strategic ties with China.

Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat attributed the decision to two key reasons. First, the military was too busy enforcing a national anti-drug campaign, which was launched last month. Second, with commune elections scheduled for June, the armed forces are needed to “protect the good security and public order for the people,” he said.

Analysts have noted that past events, including the country’s hotly contested 2013 general elections, have not notably overstretched the military’s capacity. If human resources were an issue, however, analysts wonder why Cambodia did not suspend Angkor Sentinel until later this year, after the commune elections and six-month anti-drug campaign, to keep US strategic relations on an even keel?

Hun Sen has expressed support for Trump, likely because the incoming US leader has made comments and tweets to suggest he would not pressure countries to improve human rights or democracy. Trump said during his inauguration speech that under his leadership the US “will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

Hun Sen’s decision to cancel the joint Angkor Sentinel exercise, while testing ties with the US, will likely embolden his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of crucial provincial polls. In August, the government announced that almost 76,000 police gendarmerie officers and military troops will be deployed to monitor the upcoming commune elections. Such a security presence was also on display at the 2013 general election.

In a post-election report, the watchdog Comfrel described the deployments as creating an atmosphere of “fear and intimation.” “Armed forces and police were not on duty to provide security for the events but to actively support the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] CPP campaign and openly demonstrated their loyalty to the party,” the report said.

“Cambodia’s military is politically neutral, except for when it’s not,” the Phnom Penh Post recently quipped. Government critics say the armed forces have been almost completely  politicized since the CPP came to power in 1979 under an earlier form and have since been used to crackdown on dissent and ensure the electorate votes for the CPP at elections.

In July, Tom Malinowski, US assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor, warned that the US might end cooperation with Cambodia’s armed forces if they were found to be involved in political crackdowns and human rights abuses. The joint exercises aimed to improve military-to-military cooperation and are dedicated mainly to land mine clearance, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief.

US air force General Pawling (R) talks to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) during the multi-national exercise Angkor Sentinel 2010 at Kampong Speu province, 60 kilometers west of Phnom Penh on July 17, 2010. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

At the same time, rights groups have expressed alarm at what else the US military might be imparting to Cambodian counterparts at the joint exercises’ peacekeeping and other situational components. After 2014’s Angkor Sentinel, Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights lobby, claimed that the US had “provided training that would assist Cambodia’s military in government crackdowns on the political opposition and civil society activists.”

The decision to cancel the exercises will thus deny Hun Sen’s erstwhile critics a high profile occasion to highlight his government’s human rights abuses and political crackdowns, one where US officials in attendance would have paid especially close attention.

Hun Sen’s decision appears to be well-calibrated, both diplomatically and strategically. The US, busy with a fractious political transition, is unlikely to make much of a fuss about the apparently temporary suspension. At the same time, the news will be well received by China. Defense spokesman Chhum Socheat might have been forthright when he said the decision “is not about Chinese influence”, though few independent analysts in Phnom Penh believed him.

China is currently Cambodia’s largest provider of aid and loans, and its most important trading partner. In December, Cambodian and Chinese troops took part in an eight-day joint military exercise, known as Golden Dragon, in Kampong Speu province, the same area where US and Cambodian troops have staged joint maneuvers. The Khmer Times, quoting military officials, described the joint exercise as the “first such operation of its kind in Cambodia.” It followed on last February’s first ever naval training exercise between Cambodia and China.

Angkor Sentinel’s cancellation is not the first time Cambodia has risked criticism for China’s sake. In June, Cambodia reportedly forced the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a consensus-based regional grouping, to retract a strongly worded statement towards China on South China Sea disputes, as it had done at a similar ASEAN summit meeting in 2012. Days later, China promised Phnom Penh an additional US$600 million in aid and loans.

As US-China competition for regional influence mounts, Cambodia’s decision to cancel its joint military exercises with the US is no doubt aimed at making clear its position in the great power rivalry. While many Southeast Asian nations have taken a balanced approach to US-China competition, the region has more recently become more visibly divided into pro-US and pro-China camps.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) speaks to Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (R) during a meeting at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on December 14, 2016. STR/AFP.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been the most prominent of the region’s leaders to turn away from the US and towards China. Days after Duterte made an official visit to Cambodia in December, Hun Sen announced he would launch his own war on drugs, which critics say could give CPP supporters an alibi to harass or eliminate opponents ahead of the pivotal commune polls.

Duterte’s strong views on the US military’s role in the region may have influenced Hun Sen’s decision. In September, Duterte announced his intention to end joint exercises the Philippines holds with the US – though his defense ministry said in November that they would merely be scaled back. At the World Economic Forum, days after scrapping his US joint exercises, Hun Sen showed support for Duterte’s position: “I honestly say that I am unhappy to criticize the [US] policy of returning to Asia and I praise the policy of the new President Duterte.”

David Hutt is a Phnom Penh-based journalist. He’s on Twitter at: @davidhuttjourno

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