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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Army best friends with China and Vietnam

Army best friends with China and Vietnam

China is the biggest source of military aid to Cambodia, contributing more than $5 million a year, although Vietnam helps train more Cambodian soldiers, senior defense officials said.

Tea Banh, Co-minister of the Ministry of Defense and a deputy prime minister, said China gives the most military assistance but the exact amount depends on the demands of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) each year.

"China sometimes helps Cambodia with more than $5 million a year," Banh said.

A senior official at the Ministry of Defense, who asked not to be named because of the current political climate, said China started helping the RCAF in 1999.

"At that time, Cambodia had completely finished with the war, had stable armed forces and peace - that was a good chance for China to start planning projects to help the RCAF," the official said.

Over the past three years, China had spent approximately 40 million yuan (or about $5 million) a year, the official said.

Projects have included building the High Command Headquarters on National Highway 4, developing the Combined Arms Officer School Thlok Tasek near the town of Pich Nil in Kampong Speu province and constructing a five-story building at Preah Ket Melea military hospital, which was recently completed.

China sponsors an average of 40 Cambodian soldiers every year to study military strategy in China, and this year supplied parachutes to Cambodian paratroopers.

Despite the generous military aid, the official said there were no strings attached.

"So far I have not seen that China needs anything from our country," the official said. "It is a fantasy that [if] China helps Cambodia, China must want something from Cambodia."

Despite repeated requests to the Chinese embassy over the past month, Chinese officials declined to comment on this story.

For defense experts posted to foreign embassies in Phnom Penh, China's role in developing Cambodia's military comes as no surprise.

"I think the Chinese have the same kind of influence in the military as in [Cambodia's] economy and elsewhere," said Colonel Patrick Chanoine, the French embassy defense attaché.

Vietnam is the second biggest benefactor to the RCAF, according to the Minsitry of Defense official and embassy sources.

Nguyen Van Mai, deputy defense attaché at the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh, said that since 2003, Vietnam has helped train at least 200 RCAF soldiers a year in Vietnam.

"We help [the RCAF] only on training ... and we help depending on Cambodia's demands," Van Mai said. "On average, we spend about $300 on the accommodation, food and stipends for each Cambodian soldier training in Vietnam."

Tea Banh said: "Now, Vietnam takes up to 500 Cambodian soldiers a year to study in Vietnam," but added that this figure included those studying long term in Vietnam, some up to six years.

The past decade has seen a shift in the provision of military aid to the RCAF. Prior to the coup in July 1997, the United States had been the biggest supplier of military aid to Cambodia, the official said, but defense assistance has been prohibited by the US since then.

On August 2, the White House announced it would overturn its ban on military aid to Cambodia, in return for Cambodia signing the so-called "Article 98" agreement not to send US citizens in Cambodia to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Since then, however, embassy officials in Phnom Penh have stressed that the move does not assure Cambodia of actually receiving defense assistance.

Nowadays, two of Cambodia's other major military donors are Australia and France.

Australia spends approximately $750,000 a year developing the English language skills of RCAF troops, training mid-to-high-ranking officers and assisting with the maintenance, curriculum and uniforms for officers at the Pich Nil officer school, according to embassy sources. They are looking for cooperation projects between the two navies.

France focuses much of its military aid on the 7,800-strong gendarmerie, or military police, said Chanoine, who declined to quantify the amount of money spent on defense cooperation.

However, their military presence in Cambodia represents the largest commitment of French military aid in Asia, Chanoine said.

Around 40 RCAF soldiers travel to France each year for training.

Japan, the biggest donor of aid to civilian development projects, provides scholarships to three Cambodian soldiers to study engineering and officer training in Japan each year, said the Ministry of Defense official.

The future of military cooperation and reform of the RCAF will be outlined in a five-year strategic "white paper," which is being fine-tuned by a committee and is expected to be released in early 2006, after it is approved by the National Assembly.

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