Chinese military personnel head to a field to participate in...

Chinese military personnel head to a field to participate in the Golden Dragon military exercise in Svay Chok village, Kampong Chhnang province, north of Phnom Penh Cambodia, Thursday, May 16, 2024. Cambodia and China on Thursday kicked off their annual Golden Dragon military exercise to strengthen cooperation and exchange military experiences. Credit: AP/Heng Sinith

SVAY CHOK, Cambodia — Cambodia and China began 15-day military exercises on Thursday as questions grow about Beijing's increasing influence in the Southeast Asian nation.

About 1,315 Cambodian military personnel and 760 Chinese are participating in the regular “Golden Dragon” ground and sea maneuvers, including three Chinese and 11 Cambodian ships.

As the first stage of the exercises got underway at a Cambodian military base with a forested and mountainous training area about 90 kilometers (55 miles) northwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodian army commander in chief Gen. Vong Pisen thanked China for providing new equipment and helping to upgrade military facilities, including the Ream Naval Base.

The United States and others have worried that China's involvement in building a new pier at the Ream base could lead to it becoming a new outpost for the Chinese navy at a strategically important location on the Gulf of Thailand. As the Golden Dragon exercises began, two Chinese warships had been docked at the pier for more than five months, stoking those concerns.

Cambodia has insisted, however, that its constitution prohibits the deployment of foreign military forces on its territory, and the Defense Ministry said the two Chinese corvettes were just “testing” the pier and were on hand to participate in the Golden Dragon exercises, whose second phase will include maritime maneuvers near the Ream base.

Vong Pisen, speaking alongside Adm. Gao Xiucheng from the Chinese military's Southern Theater Command, underscored Cambodia's official position, saying the country would “not allow any foreign military base on our territory.”

At the same time, he acknowledged China's contribution to helping Cambodia upgrade its military capabilities and said the exercises would help build deeper cooperation and trust between the forces of the two countries.

Chinese military personnel line up during the Golden Dragon military...

Chinese military personnel line up during the Golden Dragon military exercise in Svay Chok village, Kampong Chhnang province, north of Phnom Penh Cambodia, Thursday, May 16, 2024. Cambodia and China on Thursday kicked off their annual Golden Dragon military exercise to strengthen cooperation and exchange military experiences. Credit: AP/Heng Sinith

The two military officers inspected troops and an array of armored fighting vehicles, artillery and other equipment ahead of the start of the maneuvers.

The Golden Dragon exercises have been held on a regular basis since 2016, around the same time that Cambodia canceled similar exercises with the United States known as Angkor Sentinel.

Cambodia is China’s closest ally in Southeast Asia, while China is Cambodia’s most important ally and benefactor, with a strong influence on its economy.

Beyond military projects, China funds numerous others in Cambodia — particularly infrastructure, including airports and roads, but also private projects such as hotels, casinos and property development. More than 40% of Cambodia’s $10 billion in foreign debt is owed to China.

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