The large-scale ‘Golden Dragon’ military exercises, involving almost 3,000 troops from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), officially kicked off in Kampot province on Wednesday.
Speaking during the opening ceremony in Chumkiri district, General Ith Sarath, RCAF deputy commander and chief of joint staff, said the Sino-Cambodian joint drills are “not a threat to any countries or individuals”.
He also noted that the US and Thailand have held similar drills, referring to the annual Cobra Gold war games, which is one of the largest military exercises in Asia.
The 38th edition of the Cobra Gold games was held in February this year over an 11-day period. It brought thousands of forces from the US, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia together for training in Thailand.
Writing on his Facebook page, Ministry of National Defence spokesperson Chhum Socheat echoed Ith Sarath’s comments, saying the joint military exercises are carried out to “uphold security in the region through an exchange of experiences”.
“The 2019 Golden Dragon exercises are being held to strengthen the good cooperation between the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and to exchange experiences."
“[They involve] joint exercises once a year in carrying out humanitarian tasks, disaster management, anti-terrorism drills and peace maintenance under the framework of the UN, in accordance with the cooperation between the two country’s defence ministries."
“This year’s exercises will involve 252 troops from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and 2,542 from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. The main weapons to be used this year include armoured personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, mortars, helicopters and air support weapons,” Socheat’s post read.
Sarath said the military joint exercises with China will be held annually, and they will grow in scale each year.
He also stressed their importance in strengthening the capacity of the Kingdom’s armed forces, saying “they will allow the army to benefit from a myriad of experiences shared by their Chinese counterparts, particularly in counter-terrorism, [and] natural disaster relief”.
In his speech at the ceremony, the PLA’s General Feng Xiang – the southern deputy chief of staff of infantry – hailed this year’s exercises.
“[The exercises are] a concrete mechanism to follow the consensus of the leadership of both countries, in order to foster deep cooperation on the military training field and participation in strengthening the capacities of the armies,” he said.
In its third year, the joint military exercises were first held between Cambodian and Chinese armed forces in 2016.
The first and second exercises both took place in Kampong Speu province.
Officials from both sides decided to call this year’s drills the “Golden Dragon Manoeuvre”. Preparations for their commencement began on February 28 at the live ammunition grounds of the Techo Sen Training School in Kampot.
This year’s drills will focus on counter-terrorism and humanitarian relief, with field exercises covered by the militaries including surveillance, investigation, besiegement, invasion, the liberation of hostages and the destruction of terrorists.
Also covered will be humanitarian operations, the rescue of people from natural disasters, the performance of duties under the UN umbrella, and engineering.
While some observers view the military exercises with China as a sign of Beijing’s growing influence over Cambodia, Socheat has previously remarked that Cambodia has the right to hold military drills with any country with which it holds a mutual understanding.
“China and Cambodia have a strong friendship – one that Cambodia can depend on to maintain our territory,” he said.
On February 26, a high-level RCAF delegation led by Lieutenant General Hun Manet, deputy commander-in-chief of the RCAF and commander of its infantry, met with General Han Weiguo, commander of the Chinese PLA in Beijing.
Han welcomed Hun Manet, hailing Cambodia and China as siblings with a “steel” friendship.
He said he hoped the two countries would continue to strengthen and expand their ties and cooperation under the guidance of President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The joint military drills with China follow Cambodia’s suspension of exercises with the US Army in 2017.
Analysts have previously said that this is a sign the Kingdom is moving further away from Washington and increasing its dependence on the Asian giant, with one cautioning against Cambodia finding itself locked in a “cold war situation”.