Cambodia scraps joint exercise with US but denies China influence

PHNOM PENH • Cambodia has cancelled upcoming military exercises with the United States, its Defence Ministry said yesterday, denying the decision was made to appease regional ally China, with which it conducted joint drills last month.

American and Cambodian troops had been due to take part in the annual Angkor Sentinel joint exercise this summer, which has been held for the past seven years.

But defence officials in Phnom Penh said the exercise was halted because Cambodian troops were needed to carry out an ongoing drug purge and prepare for upcoming elections, due to be held in June.

"We need forces to maintain security during the local elections in 2017. That's why we are suspending the exercise," Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said.

"It is not about Chinese influence," he added. "We have cooperation with both China and (the) US, as well as other countries."

Outgoing US President Barack Obama spent much of his eight years in office trying to forge closer alliances in Asia, part of his much-vaunted, but often distracted, pivot to the region.

It is unclear whether his successor Donald Trump will continue the policy.

Cambodia is one of China's staunchest allies in South-east Asia, with Beijing rewarding the government of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen with lucrative business and defence deals.

Last month, Cambodia hosted the Golden Dragon joint exercise with Chinese troops. In October last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Cambodia and promised hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, including military equipment.

In recent years, Cambodia has become a thorn in the side for neighbouring nations hoping to present a unified front against China's island-building in contested waters. The US has also sparred with Beijing over the issue.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2017, with the headline 'Cambodia scraps joint exercise with US but denies China influence'. Print Edition | Subscribe