Sun, Apr 05, 2015 - Page 4 News List

China flexes influence through Cambodian institute

Reuters, THLOK TASEK, Cambodia

When Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for National Defense Tea Banh addressed graduates last month at the country’s prestigious Army Institute, he directed his thanks to the guests who made it all possible — a group of crisply dressed officers from China’s People’s Liberation Army.

The institute, established in 1999 about 80km from Phnom Penh, is part of China’s increasing military aid to Cambodia. Interviews with officers serving in the Cambodian military and a senior Cambodian government official shed light on how far the school’s influence has grown in recent years.

Military aid, alongside arms sales and billions of dollars of investment, have strengthened China’s ties with Cambodia, and analysts see it as part of a push to extend regional influence, including in the disputed South China Sea.

During his speech at the institute in the province of Kampong Speu, Tea lavished praise on the “luxurious” facilities — a rarity for Cambodia’s often ramshackle armed forces.

Referring to the Chinese, he added: “We are grateful to them for understanding our difficulties.”

Since 2009, about 200 cadets have been admitted annually to four-year courses devised by China’s Ministry of National Defense and Chinese advisers who oversee Cambodian teaching staff, three officers said.

This includes compulsory six month stints at military academies in China.

The 190 students who graduated in March were the third such group from the school.

“Graduates have already been put into influential positions, including the head of army brigades,” a senior government official said, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “They’re in fighting forces in positions where they can make decisions.”

The school also admits about 200 students per year for a shorter six-month course.

The official said China paid for the majority of the institute’s construction and covers most of the operating costs.

About half of all Cambodia’s officer trainees now come through the institute, according to an officer with close knowledge of the school, who also declined to be named.

The institute appears to be China’s first attempt to build a large-scale facility of this kind in Southeast Asia, Australian Defence Force Academy security expert for Southeast Asia Carl Thayer said.

“For China, it’s the beginning of a long-term strategy of winning influence in the Cambodian military by cultivating these people. And China keeps very, very deep intelligence files on everybody,” he said. “Nowhere in Southeast Asia is the Chinese influence as great as what you’re talking about.”

The growth of the school comes amid a significant rise in Chinese arms sales and military aid to Cambodia. China also invests billions in the nation’s economy.

In 2013, Cambodia took delivery of 12 Harbin Z-9 helicopters using a US$195 million Chinese loan. The next year, it received a donation of 26 Chinese trucks and 30,000 military uniforms.

Chinese-funded construction at the school has proceeded apace. Since an infusion of funds in 2002, more than 70 buildings have been erected on the roughly 148 hectare site, according to an institute document seen by reporters.

Cambodian Ministry of National Defense officials did not respond to requests from reporters for comment.

China’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement responding to questions from reporters that it would “continue to increase its level of support for the institute, to help the Cambodian side raise its teaching abilities and level of personnel training... This aid has no political conditions attached, and will not harm the interests of any third party.”

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