The Ministry of Defence on Thursday warned civilians and aircraft to avoid a section of Kampong Speu province from March 15 to March 30 while Cambodia participates in its Golden Dragon military training exercises with China.

The exercises will feature 190 soldiers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and 280 from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, 100 more soldiers on the Chinese side than participated previously.

first Golden Dragon was held in December 2016, with the government cancelling similar annual exercises with the US and Australia around the same time.

At the time, the Cambodian government claimed it was too busy with the upcoming July elections to hold exercises with the US or Australia.

Yesterday, however, an air force spokesman confirmed what was long suspected: the exercises were cancelled because the US and Australia “demand too many conditions”, said spokesman Prak Sokha.

Carl Thayer, an Australian professor and regional expert, said the excuse of being too busy was a “pretence”, though the election cycle may indeed have something to do with the cancellations.

“The last thing the Cambodian government wants is foreign military in the country [during elections],” Thayer explained.

In contrast with the human rights and political conditions set by Western powers, he said, “opportunistic” China has no qualms about the “evisceration of democracy”.

The US, meanwhile, has been openly critical of a widely condemned ongoing government crackdown that saw the forced dissolution of the country’s only viable opposition, as well as the arrest of its leader.

Sokha said three Chinese aircraft had already arrived in Cambodia, and Prime Minister Hun Sen recently bragged that thousands of tonnes of weapons will soon arrive in Cambodia, with defence officials confirming he was referring to equipment for the exercises.

Hem Tha, deputy commander of Brigade 70 – the host of the drills – confirmed that some equipment, including “armoured personnel carriers” would be gifted to Cambodia permanently.

“Please don’t be alarmed,” the announcement states, cautioning that there will be “live round” exercises.

Ear Sophal, author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Quest for Resources is Reshaping the World, said that the message is meant for both international and domestic consumption.

“A bigger Golden Dragon with lots of equipment you get to keep is always a veiled message both to those snubbed (the US and Australia) and to your own people: China’s got my back and I’ve got a bunch of new toys,” said Sophal via email.

David Josar, spokesman for the US Embassy, said that even though joint military exercises have been cancelled, the American military continues to focus on “humanitarian assistance”.

“We routinely send military personnel to help train Cambodian soldiers for the important, courageous and dangerous work they do as UN peacekeepers,” he added.

Updated: 7:37am, Friday March 9 2018