PHNOM PENH • China will hold its first exercise with Cambodia's navy next week, soon after a visit by the military vessels of Beijing's old enemy, Japan.
It is the latest sign of China's growing presence in a region where maritime tension is rising.
Three warships carrying 737 Chinese sailors will dock on Monday at a port in Preah Sihanouk province, just over a day after the scheduled departure of three vessels of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force now holding cultural exchanges with Cambodian navy personnel.
While attention focuses on China's activities in the East and South China seas, Beijing has been busy strengthening defence and economic ties with Cambodia.
The visit by the warships comes amid regional jitters over China's deployment of surface-to-air missiles to a disputed South China Sea island it controls, which Beijing said yesterday were "necessary self- defence facilities". The Chinese navy will conduct a rescue exercise for a few hours, close to where the Japanese are now docked.
"This will be a big cooperation and joint exercise for training in rescue operations," Cambodia's deputy navy chief, Vice-Admiral Vann Bunneang, told Reuters. "This is to boost readiness for when boats sink and natural disasters occur."
China jointly runs a military academy in Cambodia and has been supplying its armed forces with helicopters, shoulder-fired rockets and vehicles, while sending cadets to China for training.
Analysts say the United States is concerned about Cambodia becoming a vassal state that could do Beijing's regional bidding in the consensus-led Asean, a notion Phnom Penh rejects. Washington has sought to keep Cambodia on its side with its own military exercises, despite friction over the country's poor human rights record.
Visits by Japanese and Chinese ships showed competition for influence and Cambodia should be cautious in managing its future ties, said Mr Ou Virak, of the Future Forum think-tank.
In another sign of China's bridge-building initiatives, two of its missile frigates and a supply ship docked at the Laem Chabang port in Chonburi province of Thailand yesterday at the start of a five-day goodwill visit.
The Liuzhou and Sanya missile frigates and Qinghai Lake supply ship are from China's 21st naval escort fleet.