The ongoing Cambodia-China military exercises, dubbed “Golden Dragon 2023”, are not a threat to any country, and in fact – barring certain conditions – the Kingdom welcomes the militaries of any nation that would like to conduct joint drills, said a spokesman for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

The Cambodian and Chinese militaries are carrying out joint exercises from March 20 to April 8. The drills, held in Kampong Chhnang province, are the fifth of their kind since 2016, according to RCAF spokesman Thong Solimo.

At a March 21 press conference, Solimo explained that the drills have been planned for a long time, and were initially agreed to as long ago as 2015.

“This year’s Golden Dragon exercises will see the participation of over 500 Cambodian troops and more than 200 from China. They will work on simulating security operations for major events and on various humanitarian rescue drills, with the exchange of experience being the main goal of the exercises,” he said.

The exercises are held at Phnom Chum Rik Reay in Samaki Meanchey district’s Peam commune. Aside from light infantry weapons and equipment, heavy vehicles and demining tools will be employed, along with specialised medical equipment, including substances that can neutralise various chemicals.

“The two humanitarian areas that this year’s drills will focus on are demining and the prevention of a communicable disease with an unknown source. This year will not see the use of heavy artillery fire, as was seen – and heard – in previous years,” he said.

Solimo dismissed any suggestion that the exercises are in any way related to the ongoing geopolitical contest between China and the US, or the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

“Cambodia welcomes the opportunity to conduct joint military exercises with any nation, not just China or any particular country,” he said.

He explained that any country that wishes to carry out joint drills with any units of the RCAF should submit their request to the government.

“As long as their proposal is in line with the principles of the Cambodian Constitution and does not breach international law, or harm or threaten a third country, we will consider it,” he said.

“Naturally, the exercises should serve the Kingdom’s interests, and we will select the best location for them. The expenses should be covered by the nation proposing the drills,” he noted.

Royal Academy of Cambodia secretary-general Yang Peou said the exercises appear to be part of the normal defence cooperation between any two friendly militaries.

“These kinds of drills strengthen cooperation between states, as well as armies. These particular drills will improve the capacity of both armies to respond to natural disasters, and upgrade their capacities as a whole,” he said.

Seng Vanly, a lecturer in international relations, echoed with Peou’s views, saying the purpose of the drills was simply to sharpen the skills of the two militaries and improve cooperation.

“Of course, these joint exercises could hardly avoid predictable criticism. Any cooperation between the two countries, be it economic or military, always receives criticism from the West. They accuse the Kingdom of being too close to China, or of being one of its chess pieces. Of course, Golden Dragon is happening amid accusations that Cambodia has permitted the Chinese military to establish bases on its soil,” he added.

Thong Mengdavid, a research fellow at the Asian Vision Institute’s Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies, also said that he saw the joint drills as merely a capacity building tool.

“Cambodia has expressed its wishes to resume military exercises with the US, and everyone knows the Kingdom receives military assistance from the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia as well. This support ranges from technical to financial, infrastructure or assistance with weapons systems,” he said.