Carlyle A. Thayer, C3S Paper No.2077
WE request your assesment about an event which may have some geopolitical implications in Southeast Asia: The US Navy is conducting “Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training” (CARAT) exercises with the Cambodian Navy in Sihanoukville right now; the training is supposed ”to be” the most advanced” so far.
Cambodia has been participating in CARAT Exercises since 2010 and this is not some major event. We request an assessment of its broader implications.
Q1. Are the CARAT exercises being conducted to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific? Is Cambodia’s inclusion in the program in 2010 reflective of this?
ANSWER: The CARAT Exercises are primarily conducted to advance the objectives of the U.S. Pacific Command’s (PACOM) theatre engagement. The U.S. views engagement across a broad spectrum of activities ranging from military exercises with allies to goodwill port visits with states at the other end of the spectrum. The U.S. pursues engagement to assist countries like Cambodia develop capacities to undertake maritime operations and thus contribute to maritime security in general terms, including non-conventional threats such as piracy and counter-terrorism. U.S. engagement is also designed to habituate the host state into cooperating with the US Navy on a regular if not routine basis. The US seeks influence through person to person contact. And the US seeks a degree of access.
US theater engagement obviously takes into account China-Cambodia relations and the extent to which this might be an impediment to US objectives. The record indicates that it was Cambodia that made the initiative to seek out support from US PACOM and this resulted in a natural evolution in defense ties. Cooperation between the armed forces led to US support for Cambodia’s commitment to UN Peacekeeping. Cambodia first hosted the Angkor Sentinel Capstone Exercise in 2010, then the largest multilateral exercise of its nature in East Asia.
Q2. Is it possible the Chinese are opposed to this, or are the exercises too minor for China to care very much?
ANSWER: China is not overly concerned with the CARAT Exercises. They began in 1995 in the region and long predate the US rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific. China will keep a wary eye on how the Cambodia-US military relationship develops. In fact, China has begun to mimic US-type military engagement activities with regional states. But the bottom line is that China has considerable influence over the Hun Sen regime. China has acted opportunistically in the past when the US has imposed sanctions on Cambodia for human rights violations, such as the expulsion of Uighur refugees in late 2009. China stepped in and provided ground transport vehicles when the US halted the supply of surplus trucks. China can also provide lethal weapons and equipment without any legal or moral restrictions.
(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)