Cambodia’s suspension of a military exercise with Australia this week is part of a long game being played by China, says John Blaxland
What’s all the fuss about Cambodia’s suspended military exercise with Australia?
Cambodia has been under considerable pressure from China to distance itself from the US and, to a lesser extent, Australia, for some time. So it is not that surprising that Cambodia aborted a planned military counterterrorism exercise with Australia’s special forces in Cambodia.
From Australia’s viewpoint this is a discouraging and disconcerting development.
For now, though, this is as far as it will likely go. But the signal it sends to Australia and other interested states involved with Cambodia in bilateral security arrangements is clear and resounding. China simply doesn’t have to push much harder for now. It is playing the long game and can afford to wait before it ratchets up the pressure further on Cambodia.
So what’s at stake for Australia? Australia sees its security and prosperity integrally linked with Southeast Asia. ASEAN, when aggregated, is Australia’s second biggest trading partner (second to China). Australia has a vested interest in a broad range of constructive and broad relations across Southeast Asia. Its national interests are best served by a stable and prosperous ASEAN and its foreign and defence policy is geared towards bolstering bilateral ties and multilateral institutions associated with ASEAN.
Australia’s multifaceted engagement with ASEAN countries is seen as having significant economic benefits associated with the range of free trade agreements—including a multilateral one with ASEAN and a range of bilateral ones with Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, for instance.
But it is also seen as having significant security benefits reflected in Australia’s efforts at engagement bilaterally with countries like Cambodia. These military activities are aimed at bolstering local capability, while building relationships and raising regional awareness for Australians engaged in such exercises.
Australia has long invested in bilateral security ties with Cambodia and played a pivotal role in the Cambodian peace process. Australia’s Foreign Minister Gareth Evans brokered a peace deal that preceded a deployment of the United Nations Transitional Administration in Cambodia (UNTAC) from 1992 to 1993. Australia sent the largest contingent and the military commander, Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, to take charge of that complex operation.
The credit for that contribution to Hun Sen’s subsequent rule and Cambodia’s re-emergence on the international stage as well as its increased prosperity seems to be largely forgotten now. Australia clearly was invested heavily in the Cambodian peace plan. Its bona fide credentials in the region are second to none. Cambodia’s snub is disturbing for the implications it raises.
In the years since the departure of UNTAC Australia has remained closely engaged. Nowadays this engagement includes English-language training, which is a key tenet of Australia’s region-wide Defence Cooperation Program. This training supports the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ participation in ASEAN-related security forums (for which English is the lingua franca), UN peacekeeping activities, as well as training in Australia and other English-speaking countries. Australia has supported English-language programs for Cambodian military personnel for over 20 years.
In addition, Australia offers around 55 training places to Cambodian officers on Australian courses focused on professional development and governance. Australia also supports the National Committee for Maritime Security, by helping to establish guidelines and procedures to affect coordinated interagency responses to maritime contingencies. These placements and programs are expected to continue. Cambodia gains considerably from this quite generous Australian support.
Australia demonstrably values its relationships with the countries of ASEAN and finds Cambodia’s distancing from it disheartening. Nonetheless, the Australian government will likely play it down
In recent years, until this week at least, Australia had been increasing counterterrorism cooperation through biannual training serials between Cambodian and Australian special forces. This has been seen as highly valuable for a number of reasons. First, it helps bolster Cambodian capabilities to handle a terrorist incident in Cambodia. Second, it builds relationships between Cambodian and Australian special forces—relationships that conceivably one day might prove useful, particularly if they find themselves having to cooperate over an international hostage incident or having to collaborate in some negotiations somewhere. For the Australians it provides invaluable exposure to the language, culture and norms of Cambodia. It helps the Australians better understand the neighbourhood. In return, the Cambodians benefit by being able to benchmark their capabilities with those of Australia’s highly regarded special forces teams.
Australia demonstrably values its relationships with the countries of ASEAN and finds Cambodia’s distancing from it disheartening. Nonetheless, the Australian government will likely play it down. There is nothing to be gained diplomatically by making a scene over this. Australian diplomats and military officials recognise it is Cambodia’s prerogative and will be quietly appealing for a reversal to allow such exercises to continue in future—but it will undoubtedly do so out of the public eye from behind closed doors as a mark of respect for Cambodian sovereignty.
Royal Cambodian National Counterterrorism Special Forces on a training exercise. Cambodia aborted a planned military counterterrorism exercise with Australia’s special forces this week. Photo: Wikimedia Commons