Phnom Penh, Cambodia - China is hosting a joint military exercise with five members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a move that experts say appears to be an image-building show of force in a region where Beijing's influence is growing.
The military exercise comes amid simmering tensions between China and neighboring countries over sovereignty of the South China Sea.
The exercise, which began Monday, is taking place in China's southern Guangdong province on the northern shores of the hotly contested sea. It includes Cambodian, Lao, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese forces. The exercise, named Aman Youyi-2023, or Peace and Friendship-2023, will end Wednesday, according to a press release from China's Ministry of National Defense.
The Chinese forces involved in the exercise are mostly from the Chinese People's Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, according to the ministry. The ASEAN participating forces include ground detachments and surface vessels, according to the ministry.
The drills are focused on counterterrorism and maritime security, said China's official Xinhua News Agency. They are land- and sea-based with 'drills on counterterrorism and anti-piracy.'
Sophal Ear, an associate professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, told VOA Khmer that the military exercise reflects China's continuing effort to embrace Cambodia in particular and some ASEAN members in general.
South China Sea
The exercise shows 'that China is the regional superpower and ... divides ASEAN member states on South China Sea issues,' said Rim Sokvy, a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
Among ASEAN member states, the Philippines, Brunei and two participating in the exercises, Vietnam and Malaysia, are official claimants to portions of the sea where China is trying to establish its control.
Ha Hoang Hop, associate senior fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, talked to VOA Vietnamese via Facebook, saying, 'The drill is more about propaganda than substance.'
Cambodia sent about 100 troops to the exercise, according to a Facebook post by the Cambodia Ministry of National Defense on Nov. 11. VOA could not reach Cambodia's Defense Ministry spokesperson for comment.
Thai forces are participating in part because of a desire to learn from China about modern defense technology, especially cyber tech, according to official Facebook posts.
Rear Admiral Nguyen Viet Khanh, deputy chief of staff, Vietnamese Navy, at the opening ceremony in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province on Monday said the drill was a way to strengthen military cooperation on a range of issues.
'The region and the world at large are facing non-traditional security challenges like terrorism, climate change, piracy, armed piracy,' he said, according to Quan doi nhan dan, the news outlet of the Vietnamese People's Army. 'These challenges are transnational, complex, thus we're required to deepen cooperation to address them effectively.'
Kin Phea, director of the Institute of International Relations of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, a government think tank, denied that Phnom Penh was falling under Chinese influence.
'For Cambodia, I think we still maintain an independent foreign policy position based on the rule of law and multilateralism,' Phea told VOA Khmer.
Researcher Rim Sokvy said Thailand and Vietnam are better able to balance their relationship with China and the U.S. because they occupy strategic locations of interest to the superpowers.
He added that their participation in the exercise does not mean that those countries are shifting toward China, but it does show they want to develop technological expertise and strengthen regional cooperation for combatting piracy and other maritime crimes.
Sophal Ear said, 'to be honest, the shift for Cambodia happened long ago; for Vietnam, there is no shift. They are going to China to learn from the enemy. They say keep your friends close and your enemies closer. They have chosen to get closer to China to better learn how to defeat them.'
Le Nguyen of VOA Vietnamese and Wasamon Audjarint of VOA Thai contributed to this report.