Cambodia’s navy has come out praising the “heroism and charisma” of Prime Minister Hun Sen, while noting with interest in its year-end report that military ships from the United States and Australia did not dock at Cambodian ports for joint drills in 2017.
In January last year, Cambodia cancelled its annual joint military exercises with the US. The following month, it did the same with Australia, with observers at the time pointing to a strategic pivot towards China.
Ouk Seyha, deputy naval commander, on Thursday said 11 ships from six different nations had docked at Cambodian military bases.
But, he noted, “Last year there was no US and no Australians docking . . . The US did not dare to come, but Australia had planned to come and Samdech [Defence Minister Tea Banh] had agreed for [Australia to come], but [Australia] said it was busy.”
“The interesting thing is China and Russia – they were happy with their visit and there were joint exercises,” he added.
But at the time, Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said it was Cambodia’s decision to call off the counter-terrorism training with Australia, saying Cambodia was too busy with upcoming elections and a controversial drug crackdown. Cambodia did make time, however, to train with China two months prior in their biggest ever joint exercise, codenamed “Golden Dragon”.
The navy’s remarks come at the same time as a comprehensive collection of papers about Cambodia’s foreign relations, published by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
In one, focused on Cambodia’s defence strategy, Var Veasna, a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, noted that “both China and the US are two of the most important defense partners contributing significantly to the RCAF’s professional development and capability”.
“However,” Veasna wrote, the decision to postpone US and Australian military cooperation “has raised concerns about Cambodia’s future defense cooperation with Washington and the West”.
“Cambodia’s move has caused controversy about whether Cambodia is making a pivot to China . . . some defense analysts believe that such a move could have some negative impacts on Cambodia’s interests for its defense sector.”
Seyha also paid respect to Hun Sen’s “great heroism and charisma”, and claimed he had “brought political stability, eliminated the colour revolutionaries by taking action to suspend 118 [opposition] politicians and brought peace and security for the people across the country”.
Naval Commander Tea Vin also appeared to flout the military’s supposedly apolitical stance, saying there was a need to increase their activities “to prevent an attack by the enemy . . . and the traitor”, language reminiscent of that used to describe the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Cambodia’s navy. Deputy Commander Seyha said of the eight vessels purchased by the Kingdom between 2007 and 2017, only seven were ship-shape. One was undergoing repairs after running aground.
The navy also did not have “enough maps”, and radars at some bases were broken, he said. The Ministry of Defence saw an almost 20 percent bump in its budget between 2016 and 2017, to $462.4 million, and remains one of the highest funded ministries.
Additional reporting by Erin Handley