China and Cambodia to begin annual military exercise to strengthen cooperation, fight terrorism

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia and China begin their annual Golden Dragon military exercise this week to strengthen cooperation and exchange military experiences, a Cambodian official said Monday.

A total of 1,315 military personnel from Cambodia and 760 from China will participate in the 15-day exercise, backed by three Chinese warships and 11 Cambodian ships, Cambodian army spokesperson Maj. Gen. Thong Solimo told journalists. He said the exercise, starting Thursday, is aimed at training to fight terrorism and provide humanitarian relief in both countries as well as in the region.

The annual Golden Dragon exercises began in December 2016, shortly after Cambodia canceled similar exercises with the United States called Angkor Sentinel.

China describes its friendship with Cambodia as “ironclad.” Cambodia is China's closest ally in Southeast Asia, while China is Cambodia’s most important ally and benefactor, with a strong influence on its economy.

Cambodia has numerous Chinese-funded projects — particularly infrastructure, including airports and roads, but also private projects such as hotels, casinos and property development. More than 40% of Cambodia’s $10 billion in foreign debt is owed to China.

Beijing’s support allows Cambodia to largely disregard Western concerns about its poor record on human and political rights, and in turn Cambodia generally supports Beijing’s positions on foreign policy issues such as its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Cambodia recently reiterated its determination to go ahead with a Chinese-financed 180-kilometer (112-mile), $1.7 billion Funan Techo Canal project across four provinces in the southern part of the country to connect the capital, Phnom Penh, to the Gulf of Thailand.

The plan has raised concern from neighboring Vietnam, where some analysts say the 100-meter (330-foot) -wide, 5.4 meter (18-foot) -deep canal could make it easier for China to send military forces southward, close to Vietnam’s southern coast. Relations between Vietnam and its massive northern neighbor are often frosty because of Beijing's aggressive claims to maritime territories also claimed by Hanoi.

China's involvement in Cambodia's Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand has also caused concern, with the United States and some international security analysts saying it is likely to become a strategic outpost for Beijing’s navy.

On Dec. 7, two Chinese naval vessels became the first ships to dock at a Chinese-financed new pier at the base, coinciding with a visit to Cambodia by China’s top defense official.

In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a three-day visit to Cambodia to affirm the countries' ties.