Cambodia is to scrap an annual joint military exercise with the US in the latest shake-up in security co-operation between Washington and Southeast Asian capitals.
The cancellation comes as Beijing and Washington battle for influence in Southeast Asia amid signs that president-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration could take a tougher line over China’s maritime territory claims in the region. Countries including the Philippines and Malaysia have already sought closer ties with Beijing.
Cambodia said on Monday it was postponing its Angkor Sentinel exercise with the US because the armed forces would be too busy with domestic commitments, notably local elections in June and a six-month anti-drug crackdown.
“We haven’t stopped co-operating with the US. It’s not about the US and China. We do not side with any country,” said General Chhum Socheath, defence ministry spokesman.
Jay Raman, spokesperson at the US embassy in Cambodia, said the Cambodian government had notified Washington of the postponement of the exercise both this year and next year. Other US military exchanges and training programmes with Cambodia were not affected, he added.
Cambodia has long been close to China and has previously headed off criticism of Beijing over its territorial ambitions from fellow states in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But Phnom Penh has also maintained relations with the US as part of a strategy of multiple alliances favoured by the government of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister of more than 30 years and Asia’s longest-ruling leader.
The decision to cancel Angkor Sentinel comes after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced he would end joint military exercises with the US as part of a “separation” from Washington, Manila’s long-time ally. Philippine government ministers have taken a more measured line but have also indicated they wish to lessen the country’s dependence on the US.
In Cambodia’s neighbouring Vietnam, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe rounded off a tour of Southeast Asia on Monday with a pledge to give Hanoi six new coastguard patrol boats funded by a concessional loan. Vietnam has repeatedly clashed heads with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
With stops in Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia, Mr Abe’s trip focused heavily on shoring up support from the coastal nations around the South China Sea and preparing for regional trade negotiations now the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership has stalled.
Mr Abe urged Vietnam to ratify the TPP, highlighting the enduring hope in Japan that Mr Trump will eventually come round to its merits. “A US presence is indispensable for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said at a press conference.
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