Cambodia Cancels Australian Counter-Terrorism Exercise, Carlyle A. Thayer, 28 February 2017.

The original article has been reproduced below.


Cambodia has cancelled military exercises with the Australia. Cambodia’s Defense spokesmen are saying they’re too “busy working on election affairs.”

Q1- Are you surprised by how far Cambodia is moving away from Australia, the U.S. and others? How much further do you think it could go?

ANSWER 1: Yes I am surprised by the actions Hun Sen has taken against the United States and Australia (and France if rumours are confirmed). It is counter-productive to the development of professionalism in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. There are three possible explanations in descending order of likelihood.

First, Hun Sen is making a pre-emptive strike against countries expected to be critical of how the communal elections are run. In other words, if there is marked government interference in the communal elections, certain countries can be expected to make diplomatic and political protests and in some cases cancel military-to-military cooperation as a sanction.

Second, less likely, Hun Sen fears the emergence of an “anti-China” group in the officer corps and wants to cut off their conduits to external militaries.

Third, least likely, Hun Sen does not want foreign military personnel inside Cambodia during the run up to and after the commune elections in mid-year for fear they might be caught up in or intervene in domestic politics.

Q2. – Does Australia have anything to lose with Cambodia cancelling these exercises and moving toward China? What’s at stake for Australia?

ANSWER 2: If foreign criticism of the communal elections intensifies and is followed up with a suspension of military cooperation and/or suspension of aid to the Cambodian government, Hun Sen is likely to take further punitive action to demonstrate his independence. This could take the form of withdrawing Cambodian military officers from defence courses in Australia. Of course this will only make the Cambodian People’s Party regime more reliant and dependent on China.

Australia’s most recent Defence White Paper gave priority to regional military engagement. The cancellation of counter-terrorism exercises will be a major setback for Australia. Military-to-military cooperation is one conduit for Australia to gain an insight into and possibly shape or influence Cambodian policies. The loss of this conduit will reduce one major means of influence on the Hun Sen regime.

Q3. – What do you think the response will be from Australia (and some of these other countries)?

ANSWER 3: Australia will take the cancellation of counter-terrorism exercises on the chin. Privately Australia is likely to query why this decision was taken and counterargue that Cambodia is the real looser. Australian special forces have a very high international reputation for their professionalism and their Cambodian counter-parts will forfeit the opportunity to gain valuable experience. Counter-terrorism is sometimes viewed as “the low hanging fruit” in military-to-military cooperation because it is directed against a transnational threat and not a particular country.

The United States is unpredictable at the moment because the upper levels of the bureaucracies at the Defense and State Departments have not been filled. Cambodia runs the risk that under Trump future military-to-military cooperation may not be resumed.

What’s in it for the United States, Trump may well ask?

  • Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia Cancels Australian Counter- Terrorism Exercise,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, February 28, 2017.
  • All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer).
  • Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.


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