Thayer Consultancy

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Background Briefing: Cambodia: China-US Tug-ofWar Over Defence Cooperation? Carlyle A. Thayer February 15, 2013

[client name deleted] We are working on an analysis of what appears to be a sort of tug-of-war between China and the US over defense cooperation with Cambodia. We request your assessment of the questions and issues raised below. In a previous Background Brief you wrote that the one place where China hasn't been able to supplant US influence (apart from the US serving as a market for Cambodian goods) was in the field of defense aid. While the US is still miles ahead in this category, there have been a few recent developments (China directly providing arms such as attack helicopters, China opening a military academy in Cambodia, etc.) that indicate that China is trying to establish itself as a viable alternative to the US in terms of defense cooperation. At the same time, the US "pivot" to Asia has seen them paying what seems like special attention to Cambodia. The US recently announced its intentions to foster cooperation between the Marine Corps and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). It would appear that the Marines may even have a battalion rotating through Cambodia for six months or so (our reports are unclear on this matter). And of course, there's the US' ongoing demining aid, and port visits, and things like that. Question: does it seem that China is trying to supplant the US in the field of defense aid, much in the same way it seems to have supplanted it in more traditional aid? If so, just how big a deal is this, and how likely are they to succeed? The US has withheld defense aid packages in the past to protest human rights abuses, while China, I think it's safe to say, would never do that. Does that make China a more attractive option? If it does, how does the US counter that attraction? What do they have to offer that China doesn't? Finally, generally speaking, what does it mean for the region, and Cambodia domestically, if Cambodia shifts away from US defense cooperation towards China? ANSWER: China is ever sensitive to the U.S. military presence in its backyard. Given Chinese economic influence in Cambodia Beijing would be especially anxious by in roads by the U.S. military. Cambodia is, after all, a semi-authoritarian state where the military plays an important role in domestic politics and internal security. The

2 recent funding of Cambodia’s Defence Academy indicates that China seeks its own independent avenues of access of power in Cambodia. Chinese military assistance has three advantages over the U.S. China can sell arms, like the ten attack helicopters, and can do so by offering soft loans and other concessions. Second, China can fund relatively big infrastructure projects like the Defence Academy. And third, Chinese aid comes with no formal strings attached. Chinese aid is not completely disinterested, it comes with invisible strings, the expectation that Cambodia will take Chinese interests into account. China is not trying to supplant the United States. The U.S. cannot be pushed out of Cambodia that easily. And more importantly, Cambodia gains by having two (or more) suitors. It is in Cambodia’s interest – or rather the interests of its political and military elite – to obtain aid from both China and the United States. The United States is quite good in providing assistance that develops capacity, both human resources and technical. The U.S. can offer Cambodia a very wide spectrum of what is termed professional military education and training services (PME). This ranges from full-time attendance at a staff college or military university, to a variety of short courses, such as logistics management, humanitarian assistance, civil military assistance and military medicine. The U.S. also offers a variety of training packages in-country tailored to the specific needs of the host country. U.S. assistance in counter-terrorism is one example. Another example is the annual CARAT (Cooperation and Readiness Afloat Training) series. The U.S. can offer specialised technical services. The forthcoming visit of a small detachment of U.S. Marines to Cambodia and Vietnam is an example. They will demonstrate the latest demining techniques and technology gained from their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. This will bolster Cambodia’s capacity to deal with domestic demining as well as internationally on behalf of the UN. In judging the effectiveness of military assistance it is not the total dollar amount that is spent that matters. The name of the game in providing military assistance is how much influence does the donor accrue. In other words, what personal relationships are built up and what access to power does military assistance provide. Net assessment: China is not trying to supplant U.S. military assistance to Cambodia or even provide a viable alternative. China has certain strengths in the kind of military assistance it can deliver. The U.S. has different strengths. China is not attempting to outbid the U.S. and drive it from the military assistance marketplace. China is seeking to redress a deficiency in its relations with Cambodia. Cambodia, for its part, will seek assistance from both China and the United States knowing that neither can afford to walk away and leave the field to the other. Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia: China-US Tug-of-War Over Defence Cooperation?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, February 15, 2013.

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