China, Cambodia kick off Golden Dragon 2023 joint drills

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China, Cambodia kick off Golden Dragon 2023 joint drills

Two navies held an unprecedented maritime exercise on March 19 in Cambodian waters near a controversial base.

By RFA staff 2023.03.23 -- Military exercises between Cambodia and China got underway in central Cambodia on Thursday after the two nations staged their first-ever joint naval drills last Sunday, local media said.

The Golden Dragon 2023 exercises officially kicked off with 257 Chinese and 583 Cambodian troops participating, the Khmer Times reported, citing Maj. Gen. Thong Solimo, spokesman for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

The exercise, which runs for two weeks, will focus on security operations during major events and humanitarian relief, it said.

Meanwhile on March 19, a Chinese warship - the Jinggangshan - conducted an unprecedented maritime exercise with the Cambodian Navy in the waters off Sihanoukville in southwest Cambodia.

The province is home to the Ream Naval Base that China is helping Cambodia to develop. Western media said Phnom Penh and Beijing had signed a secret deal to allow the Chinese military to use part of the base, but the Cambodian government rejected the reports.

The Jinggangshan is a Type 071 amphibious landing ship homeported in Zhanjiang, in southern China. It can carry two helicopters and up to 800 troops.

During the two-hour exercise, the Chinese naval ship and two patrol boats from the Royal Cambodian Navy conducted a coordinated navigation and communication drill, which was deemed successful, according to a report by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense.

"[O]rganization and command were precise, coordination was close, and communications were smooth," the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) quoted Captain Xu Jinfeng, the commanding officer of the Jinggangshan, as saying.

The Jinggangshan was carrying Chinese troops from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command to take part in Golden Dragon 2023.

The Golden Dragon exercises run from March 23 to April 8 at the Military Police Training Center in Kampong Chhnang province, Cambodian media said.

Maj. Gen. Thong Solimo, the RCAF spokesman, said the main purpose is "to exchange experiences with each other."

Observers from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc were invited to this year's event, he said.

This is the fifth Golden Dragon joint exercise between the two militaries since 2016. The event was cancelled in 2021 and 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Military ties between China and Cambodia have deepened in recent years, with Beijing providing aid, equipment and training to Cambodian forces.

Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier last month paid an official visit to Beijing, during which Chinese leaders reassured him of China's continuous support for Cambodia's "national sovereignty and security."

In 2021, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Cambodia over concerns about "deepening Chinese military influence" in the country.

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