Southeast Asia's Game of Thrones
Cambodia Scuttles U.S. Military Drill

Another week, another loss for the pivot that Obama and his acolytes once hailed as the cornerstone of his foreign policy strategy. In the region’s latest reversal, Cambodia has suddenly terminated its annual military exercise with the United States, less than a month after completing a landmark exercise with China. FT:

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.

Phnom Penh insisted the decision was unrelated to its strong and growing ties with China, with which it held a large military exercise named the “Golden Dragon” for the first time last month.  […]

“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.

Despite the denials about China’s influence, we think Cambodia doth protest too much. It is no secret that China has been cultivating Cambodia as a client for some time now. Earlier this year, for instance, Beijing renewed a $600 million aid package to Cambodia in exchange for its support of Chinese policies in international bodies. That arrangement has proven useful to Beijing, helping divide ASEAN and forestall a united front against China’s claims in the South China Sea. And Beijing has a clear interest in building up closer military ties with Phnom Penh as well, especially as it warily eyes U.S. plans to preposition military equipment in Cambodia.

Even if China is not pulling the strings here, the abrupt cancellation is another case of bad optics for Washington. After embarrassing pivots to China from the Philippines and Malaysia, U.S. credibility in Asia is in short supply, and the spectacle of another country spurning Washington will hardly improve the picture.

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