PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia has informed the United States that it is canceling an annual joint military exercise this year, even though planning for the event had already begun, officials from both countries said Monday.
Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Chhum Socheath said the Angkor Sentinel exercise had to be postponed because Cambodian forces would be unable to fully participate as a result of two important events: local elections in June and a six-month campaign to eradicate drug-related crime.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman confirmed in an e-mail that the exercises for 2017 and 2018 have been canceled. He said military exchanges and training programs are not affected. After the local elections in June, Cambodia will hold a general election in 2018 in which long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to face a strong challenge.
Some analysts tied the cancellation more closely to China's influence in the region, which they believe will be exercised more vigorously after Donald Trump becomes U.S. president. Trump's rhetoric on China has been unfriendly, and he has suggested that the U.S. may reduce its involvement in the region.
Southeast Asian nations, even traditional allies of the United States such as the Philippines, have recently drawn closer to China as Beijing flexes its diplomatic and military muscle in the region. Cambodia depends on China as its most important ally and has demonstrated its willingness to do Beijing's bidding in diplomatic initiatives in the region, especially regarding Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
"China is going to test the United States," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "This is one of the early test signals. Cambodia is a bit part in the overall picture."
Both Chhum Socheath and the U.S. spokesman used the term "postpone" to describe the cancellation of this year's exercise.
"We have never had any problem with the U.S.," said Chhum Socheath, explaining that in principle Cambodian forces try to make friends with all countries including the U.S., China, Russia and Vietnam, to which they have also sent their officers for training.
Cambodia in December hosted an unprecedented "Golden Dragon" joint exercise with Chinese troops similar in size and purpose to Angkor Sentinel.
Washington has a complicated relationship with Cambodia, whose human rights record is strongly criticized by groups such as Amnesty International. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch criticized the 2014 Angkor Sentinel exercise for providing "training that would assist Cambodia's military in government crackdowns on the political opposition and civil society activists."
However, U.S. policy toward Hun Sen's government has generally been conciliatory.
Last year's exercise was the seventh in the series, which tries to emphasize humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.
"Joint military exercises benefit both of our nations by enhancing our ability to work together to combat maritime piracy, protect trade and shipping routes, deter terrorists, and provide humanitarian assistance during natural disasters," U.S. Embassy spokesman Raman said in his e-mail. "The United States will look for additional ways that we can cooperate in these areas."
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this story.