Cambodia’s Defence Minister Tea Banh said the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces will postpone the annual Golden Dragon infantry exercise with the Chinese army because of the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of preparations in the aftermath of the October floods.
Tea Banh first made the announcement on Monday when he was at an inaugural ceremony for a live-fire training facility with Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian.
The Minister confirmed to VOA Khmer on Wednesday that the joint drill would not happen this year and was being postponed indefinitely.
“We have come to a decision that in this kind of situation we are not able to conduct it. Let’s wait for a more appropriate opportunity when we can do it again.”
Both militaries previously held the ever-growing drills four times in 2016, 2018, 2019, and 2020.
Despite rising COVID-19 cases in March 2020, the two militaries conducted their largest-ever joint drill, with hundreds of Chinese troops and thousands of Cambodian forces participating in war games that involved heavy artillery, assault helicopters, and surveillance drones.
The 2020 drill was hailed as an “iconic symbol” of Sino-Cambodian friendship by a Cambodian military spokesperson.
The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Wednesday.
The close friendliness between the Cambodian and Chinese militaries has raised red flags among Western democracies, especially the United States, which has aggressively criticized plans for an alleged Chinese presence at the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province.
The Cambodian military and government have denied any arrangement to allow for the Chinese to occupy part of Ream Naval Base.
Defence Ministry Spokesperson Chhum Socheat said the previous drills were funded by China and even though the exercises were canceled this year, the Chinese would continue bilateral military aid.
“The work of cooperation [with China] will be business as usual and there won’t be any changes to that,” Socheat said. “Nothing is new and we will keep implementing our work in a number of areas of military cooperation.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in a January 15 speech, said China’s decision to donate one million doses of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine were a result of Defence Minister Tea Banh’s communications with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe.
Sun Kim, a lecturer in international relations at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia, said Beijing was unlikely offended or upset by Cambodia’s decision to nix the drill.
“Cambodia's decision to postpone the drill would send a good signal to the United States that Cambodia is not doing too much bidding in support of China's standing in Southeast Asia,” Sun Kim said.
The lecturer added that it was not the best time to conduct a military drill this close to the Myanmar Armed Forces’ coup earlier this week.