Cambodia suspends annual military drill with United States

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia has suspended joint military exercises with the United States this year that were due to have been held for the eighth year in a row, a defense ministry spokesman said on Monday.

Cambodia was too busy preparing for local elections in June to be able to take part in the Angkor Sentinel exercises, Chhum Socheat said. He rejected any connection to Cambodia’s strengthening ties with China.

“Our activities will be reduced, we have a lot of security work to do,” Socheat said. The exercises have usually been held in the spring.

A U.S Embassy spokesman in Phnom Penh did not respond to Reuters request for comment on the suspension of the annual drill, which is designed to prepare for natural disasters and humanitarian work as well as to foster military cooperation.

As China’s influence in the region has grown, so Cambodia’s ties with Beijing have strengthened.

Meanwhile, uncertainty over Washington’s commitment to Asia has increased and there are doubts over how policy will develop once Donald Trump becomes U.S. president on Friday.

Last year, Beijing held a joint naval drill with Cambodia for the first time. Cambodia’s armed forces have benefited greatly from Chinese military training and equipment including jeeps, rocket launchers and helicopters.

After nearly losing a 2013 election to the opposition, Prime Minister Hun Sen faces a major test in the local election due in June and a general election set for next year. He has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for over 30 years.

Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Tom Heneghan