The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
CAMBODIA – MILITARY
On this page:
- Military Capability
- Defence Policy
- Security Cooperation
The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) is made up of approximately 100,000 total active troops and broken down into four bodies, including: Royal Cambodian Army, Royal Khmer Navy (3,000), Royal Cambodian Air Force (1,000), and Royal Gendarmerie (10,000). Additionally, the National Committee for Maritime Security performs Coast Guard functions and has representation from military and civilian agencies.
All led by the High Command Headquarters and under the command of the Ministry of National Defence, with the Minister being General Tea Banh who has served in this position since 1979. Since 2018, General Vong Pisen has been the Commander-in-Chief of the RCAF as head of the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Gendarmerie. His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni is the Supreme Commander of the RCAF which is charged with protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kingdom. Its agenda also includes regional security co-operation.
The RCAF was created in 1993 through a merger of the Cambodian People's Armed Forces and the two non-communist resistance armies. The introduction of a revised command structure early in 2000 was a key prelude to the re-organisation of the Cambodian military. This saw the Ministry of National Defence form three subordinate general departments responsible for logistics and finance, materials and technical services, and defence services under the High Command Headquarters (HCHQ).
Australia, China, France, Japan, and the US are among those active contributors in supporting RCAF in terms of military equipment, training facilities, and capacity building. Yet, military equipment inventories and acquisitions of the RCAF are armed largely with older Chinese and Russian-origin equipment. It has received limited amounts of more modern (mostly second-hand) equipment since 2010 with China as the principal provider.
The proportion of the Kingdom's global domestic product (GDP) being spent on the military fluctuates; since 1990 the lowest has been 0.80% in 2008, the highest at 3.84% in 1994. The latest figure is from 2019 and sits at 2.26% of GDP. Watch the breakdown below for Defence Forces to understand Cambodia’s military power.
To resolve security problems, the Government began a win-win policy in 1995 to propel forward national reconciliation and unity efforts by disarming the Khmer Rouge and several other security forces. The former regime soldiers 'won' through their surrender by not being prosecuted and given jobs in the public sector, while everyone else 'won' by there being fewer guerrilla soldiers. As the last groups were integrated into the RCAF in late 1998, this marked the dissolution of the Khmer Rouge's political and military organisation as well as the return of all seceded areas to Government control by the following year.
After 30 years of civil war, the Kingdom needed to downsize the RCAF at the turn of the millennium. The Government released a de-mobilisation plan and successfully reduced troop size by 10,000 personnel, but efforts stalled within a few years. Military deployments included 200 troops to the Central African Republic under MINUSCA, 175 sent to Lebanon through UNIFIL, and 290 to MALI under MINUSMA.
Since the end of fighting and the surrender of the last Khmer Rouge remnants, the Cambodian military has undergone substantial changes as it shifts to a peacetime force. The Kingdom of Cambodia is ranked 94 out of 140 by Global Fire Power according to military strength. To see footage of the RCAF, check out the next video.
Access these resources for more information on the RCAF’s military power.
- The Diplomat | Why Cambodia’s Military History Is So Important for National Security
- The Phnom Penh Post | Defence Ministry to ‘add new blood’ to Kingdom’s military
- The Defense Post | Cambodia to spend $40 million more on Chinese military equipment
- The Phnom Penh Post | Kingdom’s ‘blue helmets’ turn 15
In response to the fast changing national, regional, and global security environment, Cambodian security and defence priorities have also been continuously redefined and revised. The current security and defence policies focus on border defence, natural disasters response, maritime security, Mekong River water resource security, counter terrorism and international crimes capabilities, and security sector reform and governance. For defence diplomacy and international cooperation, Cambodia emphasises increasing its role in peacekeeping operations, the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, promoting cooperative security, and strengthening ASEAN centrality and capacity in shaping regional security architecture.
Cambodia is faced with the increasing complexity and trans-boundary impacts of non-traditional security issues such as natural disasters, climate change and food security, water resources security, terrorism, pandemic diseases, and human trafficking. As far as traditional security is concerned, the developments in the South China Sea remains the top defence and security policy agenda. To address those challenges, Cambodia tries to strengthen its capacity and promote both cooperative relationships and comprehensive win-win partnerships with its neighbours.
Two ongoing issues that could impact Cambodia's internal security are the future development of the Mekong River by neighbouring countries and anti-personnel landmines leftover from past conflict.
Cambodia is very much concerned with recent development along the Mekong River, especially with regard to the impacts of climate change on the river flow and hydropower dam construction along the mainstream of the river. The dams will negatively impact food security and induce biodiversity degradation. The tension between countries and communities sharing this trans-boundary water resource has the potential to increase. Without sustainable development and management and cooperation it could lead to serious security implications.
Cambodia was once one of the most land mined countries in the world. By the early 1990s, various aid organisations including the Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimated there were 8 to 10 million landmines scattered throughout Cambodia – more than one for every citizen. Agricultural production was held hostage and everyday life was marred by injuries and deaths caused by the unexploded ordnances. The mines were laid during Cambodia’s decades-long war by the Cambodian army, the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, the non-communist fighters, and U.S. Forces. Part of the Kingdom's defence policy is demining the territory, with renewed efforts to have the entire country cleared of unexploded ordnances by 2035.
Due to the establishment of both national strategies and management bodies in the 1990s as well as the increased involvement of the international community manifesting in the presence of international humanitarian demining organisations, demining efforts in Cambodia have advanced. The long road to a landmine-free region has been accelerated by increases in funding and galvanised attention to the issue.
Known as humanitarian disarmament, the spotlight is on the dangerous task of destroying Unexploded Ordnances (UXOs), landmines, and cluster munitions. They are below the surface of the ground and detonate upon contact of a person or a vehicle. These explosive devices are in almost all areas of the country. A greater part of it is along the Thailand border and in the countryside. The Vietnam military forced Khmer Rouge to the Thai border and then built land mines to deter Khmer Rouge from returning. This resulted in a 750-kilometre border rigged with land mines along the Cambodia-Thai border. More land mines were built during the civil war. Three decades of war and the remaining mines left Cambodia with millions of casualties, including amputees. The threat of undiscovered explosives is always a cause for concern and a lot of land cannot be used because of it.
Over one million landmines and over 3 million explosives were discovered and removed from 1992 to 2018. About 1,800 square kilometres of land has been cleared of explosives. Cambodia joined the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention in 1990 (Website is under construction). There are several organisations tasked to investigate and clear the land of explosives. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces partners with the Cambodia Mine Action Committee on demining projects, with the help of around 250 RCAF retired members.
In November 2017, the U.S. cut funds to help clear unexploded ordnance including land mines and chemical weapons in Cambodia which it had dropped during the Vietnam War. For the time being, anti-personnel landmines remain a part of the complicated historical legacy of modern conflict of Cambodia and Southeast Asia more broadly. For an update on a key milestone in realising a mine free Cambodia, watch the following news report.
Access the following resources to learn more about the Kingdom’s defence policy.
- Al Jazeera | Beating the odds and clearing landmines in Cambodia - Gallery
- The University of Melbourne - Pursuit | Protecting Cambodia’s landmine detection dogs
- The Star | Cambodian defence minister speaks up for peace and stability in Asean region
- The Phnom Penh Post | Nearly 20,000 people killed by mines, UXOs since ‘79
- The Phnom Penh Post | Government steps up to reach 2025 mine-free goal
The history of Cambodia that led up to, and comprises part of, the history of foreign interventions within the region demonstrates how critical the country is to regional security; and critical the region’s security is to global security. Further, the mass atrocities, war, and deprivation that coloured so much of Cambodia’s history in the latter part of the 20th century provide important lessons on the conditions that precipitate and result from instability, war, and genocide.
The Kingdom of Cambodia's two Defence White Papers were published in 2002 and 2006. They detail Phnom Penh's past position based on the principle of 'Flexible and Controlled Response' which takes into consideration the country's emergence from war and the RCAF's necessary reforms and capability development. In addition, this strategy contributed to the Royal Government's policy on national reconciliation, peacefulness with neighbouring nations, and good will to integrate Cambodia deeper into the international community.
Since then, however, Cambodia's security outlook has changed due to the evolving regional and global security situation in part, but more so the politics of the Hun Sen administration. This has resulted in a significant pivot by Prime Minister Sen – who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades – from Washington to Beijing. China has provided support and massive loans for his administration as it abandoned Western-backed multiparty democracy. This shift in outlook defines Cambodia's new security cooperation which has abandoned any pretence of hedging between the two great powers.
In recent years, Sen’s ever tightening relationship with China has been a point of growing media and diplomatic attention. Beijing has provided support and massive loans for his government while Sen in turn gives diplomatic support for China’s quest for dominance in the South China Sea region. As U.S. influence has weakened, China has stepped in to provide billions of dollars in loans and new infrastructure projects. To learn more about this new source of foreign aid and investment, see the #KYR: Cambodia - Economy article.
Cambodia is now one of the few countries in Southeast Asia openly embracing China. The shift is embodied by the town of Sihanoukville. Once a sleepy coastal town popular with backpackers – it is now dominated by workers, developers, and foreign-funded projects from China. Due in part to the speed of change, there is a local backlash against the investment and associated immigration, along with an increase in crime rates. Watch Phnom Penh Post’s news report on the Golden Dragon Exercises between both countries’ military forces.
Cambodian and Chinese officials have a common understanding on security issues, and China is Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid. Beijing has long traditional relations with Phnom Penh. China’s investment in the Kingdom is high in fields, such as light industry and agriculture, with trade relations also increasing in the past fifteen years. In the military field, China is attempting to build closer relations with Cambodia. This includes granted non-refundable assistance for training, shelters, health, engineering, and transportation. In the area of human resource training, Beijing has accepted RCAF personnel for training in the strategic, tactical, technical and medical fields.
China has played a key role in improving Cambodia's dilapidated military inventory since 2010, when Beijing donated 250 jeeps and trucks to Phnom Penh after the U.S. scrapped a similar plan. Subsequently, an agreement was signed on 23 January 2013 following more sales on military equipment, including 12 helicopters. Under the deal, Beijing will enhance the capacity and expertise of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces by offering training courses and providing military equipment and materials. In return, the Chinese have found a willing ally within the ASEAN framework to counter any regional unity on the South China Sea dispute.
Additionally, a controversy began in July 2019 over the alleged leasing of the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province by Beijing. Article 53 in the Cambodian Constitution enshrines the Kingdom's policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment and forbids the any foreign military base on its territory. Questions over the existence of a security agreement that allows the Chinese navy to use the naval base off the Gulf of Thailand have been consistently refuted by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Having access to a naval base on the Cambodian coast would extend China's influence in Southeast Asia and help bolster its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei all have claims within these same waters. For more information on the confusion surrounding the alleged naval base, watch the following video.
Australia and Cambodia work closely together to combat people smuggling and trafficking, irregular migration, child sex tourism, narcotics trafficking, fraud, and terrorism. An Australian Federal Police liaison office in Phnom Penh cooperates with and assists Cambodian law enforcement agencies to deal with transnational crime.
Between 2018 and 2021, the Anti-Money Laundering Assistance Team in Australia's Department of Home Affairs and the Attorney General's Department equipped Cambodian officials with the skills to develop new laws and policies to address transnational crime. This supported Cambodia in developing new laws to more effectively share evidence internationally to prosecute transnational crime and to combat the financing of weapons of mass destruction.
Australia's modest Defence Cooperation Program aims to assist Cambodia to develop a modern, outward-looking defence force that contributes to regional security and stability. Key focus areas for our defence engagement include training and education, maritime security, and organisational reform to support the professionalisation of the RCAF. Alongside the provision of technical support, professional development, and support of non-proliferation initiatives.
To learn more about Cambodia’s security cooperation, explore the resources below.
- Australian Institute of International Affairs | Cambodia Looks to China Rather Than the US
- ABC News | US official suggests Cambodia may host Chinese military assets at naval base
- War on the Rocks | Hiding in Plain Sight: Chinese Expansion in Southeast Asia
- The Phnom Penh Post | US cuts funding to CMAC amid government’s war of words with superpower
- The Phnom Penh Post | ‘Like-minded friends forever’: Golden Dragon, Cambodia’s 17-day military exercise with China, kicks off
- Khmer Times | Royal Australian Navy ship to visit Cambodia today
- Cambodia was once the most mined country in the world, but significant progress has been made to de-mine the predominantly rural areas that were once littered with the devastation ordnance. How can the ADF capitalise in our involvement to build deeper relationships? What else could Australia do to support removing the UXO’s that remain form the numerous conflicts across the region?
- China has been a significant provider of arms and military support to Cambodia and is looking to develop a seaport which will be able to support military vessels. Along with Cambodia’s engagement with the Belt and Road initiative, is there a risk that Cambodia could become a military puppet of China? How will Cambodia’s neighbours view this?
- Australia has a modest military relationship with Cambodia, limited mostly to training and education, as well as some security cooperation efforts. Is this relationship adequate, or does more need to be done to enhance the relationship? In what areas are there opportunities for mutual military cooperation, and for what reasons should this occur?
- Based on the articles, how would you define Cambodia’s military capability compared to its neighbours? What is Cambodia’s main military focus with regards to its strategic relationships? What will this mean for Australian foreign policy and military commitments towards Cambodia?