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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


China’s Military Ambitions:
Cambodia and the Region
Carlyle A. Thayer
February 8, 2018

We are preparing a report reviewing the increasingly consolidated military


cooperation between Cambodia and China as part of their “Comprehensive Strategic
Partnership of Cooperation”.
China and Cambodia are set to hold their second military drill “Golden Dragon” in
March even though Phnom Penh cancelled its annual “Angkor Sentinel” exercises
with the United States, citing the need for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces to
ensure domestic stability for elections to be held in 2017 and 2018.
We request your assessment of the following issues:
Q1. What is your view of China’s military ambition(s) in the Asia(Indo) Pacific region?
What motivates Chinese ambition(s)?
ANSWER: China seeks the overall restoration of its self-perceived primacy over Asia
that western colonialism overturned. China’s drive for primacy includes reunification
by incorporating Taiwan and recovery of lost maritime territories that Beijing views
has having been illegally occupied by Japan in the East China Sea, the Senkakus, and
the island features in the South China Sea.
China’s modernization of its armed forces are designed to cope with contingencies
related to Taiwan to win if a conflict breaks out and to deter or prevent U.S. forces
from playing a decisive role during an armed conflict involving Taiwan.
China harbors these ambitions because of the legacy of a “century of national
humiliation” and its sheer size in population and economic weight. China views the
U.S. and its alliance system in the Asia Pacific as an obstacle to its ambitions.
Q2. How does Cambodia benefit from the increasing inputs of military aid from China?
ANSWER: Cambodia’s decision to bandwagon with China is aimed at insulating itself
from western pressures to maintain a liberal multiparty democracy and to respect
human rights. Cambodia knows that if it hews to China’s line there will be little or no
interference in its domestic political affairs. Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party
want to keep control over the military and are suspicious of Cambodian military
officers who are educated abroad and an officer corps whose loyalty cannot be taken
for granted.
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China provides the training and material assistance to the Royal Cambodian Armed
Forces for it to defend Cambodia’s borders and, if called upon, to guarantee internal
security. By accepting Chinese aid Cambodia’s leaders are ingratiating themselves with
the leadership in Beijing.
Q3. What does the Kingdom’s close military ties with China mean for Cambodia’s
immediate neighbors like Vietnam and Thailand?
ANSWER: Both Thailand and Vietnam have their own relations with China’s military.
Thailand has a long history of purchasing Chinese weapons. Since the 2014 coup, the
U.S. has refrained from selling military weapons until quite recently. The only negative
aspect is that China also supplies Cambodia with weapons that would be used if there
is another flare up on the Thai-Cambodia border. The Thai military is quite capable of
holding its own in a conflict with Cambodia.
Vietnam presents a different picture. It is a military powerhouse compared to
Cambodia. Vietnam has a large land army that is well equipped. Since 2015, Vietnam
has given priority to modernizing its land army. As part of this process Vietnam will be
acquiring sixty-four T-90 main battle tanks from Russia. It should be recalled that
Chinese military assistance, including advisers, to the Khmer Rouge did not DETER
Vietnam from invading Cambodia in late 1978.
China and Vietnam have a workable military-to-military relationship. Over the last four
years they have held alternating friendly border defence exchanges that include
annual meetings between their defense ministers. Vietnamese officers attend political
school in China and there is a regular exchange program involving junior officers.
Vietnam does not purchase weapons from China. Russia is its main supplier.
Both China and Russia will have to decide how to react in the event, respectively, of a
clash between Cambodia and Thailand and between China and Vietnam.
Q4. What are the implications of Cambodia-China military ties for the changing
regional security order? (while China’s militarization of the South China Sea
coontinues).
ANSWER: Cambodia-China military ties are not unique to Southeast Asia. Although
China has military ties will all ASEAN members this varies in scope and depth with each
individual country. China’s military, however, does have an established relationship
with ASEAN and ASEAN multilateral bodies such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers
Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus). China is using military diplomacy to compete for influence
against other ASEAN dialogue partners, such as the United States. China hosts direct
ASEAN-China military meetings and China participates in ADMM-Plus low-level
military exercises.
China’s militarization of the South China Sea directly involves only four regional states
- the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. China’s militarization also impacts on
Indonesia whose official policy is to deny it is a party to the conflict.
Since the election of Beijing-friendly Duterte as president of the Philippines, military
relations between Manila and Washington have been pared back. Duterte has ordered
his military to consider procurements from China (and Russia as well). No
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demonstrable progress has been made as the U.S. remains the main source of
weaponry for the Philippines, with South Korea becoming increasingly important.
Malaysia keeps it territorial dispute well under control politically but continues to
modernize its armed forces and welcome a U.S. presence.
Brunei is a party to maritime disputes with China only if one connects two of China’s
nine-dash lines so that they cut across Brunei’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Brunei has
consistently distanced itself from the South China Sea dispute.
China’s militarization of the South China Sea has been a major driver of Vietnam’s
military modernization. Over the last five years Vietnam has become the tenth largest
importer of arms in the world. It has built up a deterrent force of modern multi-role
jet aircraft, coastal anti-ship missile batteries, a modest naval strike force with the
acquisition of missile fast attack craft, missile frigates and six Kilo-class conventional
submarines. All of thee forces are armed with missiles.
Indonesia is concerned about China’s so-called historical claims to the waters around
the Natuna islands. Indonesia has been quite proactive in detaining foreign fishing
vessels, including fishing boats from China. Indonesia has also begun to beef up its
military presence so it can respond quickly to incidents and foreign intrusions (read
China) into its waters.
In sum, in Cambodia’s view, China’s militarization of the South China Sea
demonstrates that China will soon be the dominant military power in the region and
all other countries will have to adjust to this fact. In Cambodia’s calculation, it is
accruing favor in Beijing because of its support for China’s foreign policy, especially in
the South China Sea. And Cambodia one day might have to call in a favor from China
in the event of conflict with another country, either regional or extra regional. The
leaders in Phnom Penh find comfort in tensions between Vietnam and China because
they distract Hanoi’s attention on Cambodia to a certain extent.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China’s Military Ambitions: Cambodia and the
Region,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, February 8, 2018. All background
briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.