RCAF troops in a live firing exercise in December 2019. (Photo: Mech Dara/ Twitter)

RCAF troops in a live firing exercise in December 2019. (Photo: Mech Dara/ Twitter)

Unpacking Cambodia’s 2022 Defence White Paper

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Cambodia’s 2022 Defence White Paper reiterates longstanding priorities of border security, counterterrorism and domestic stability like its predecessors, but contains an unprecedented focus on cyber defence and ambitious modernisation goals.

Cambodia released the latest iteration of its Defence White Paper (DWP22) on 12 May 2022. The DWP22 took four years to draft, with the involvement of different Cambodian ministries, a local policy think-tank (the Asian Vision Institute), and the Australian Department of Defence (DoD). The Australian DoD has been a steadfast partner for Cambodia’s defence sector since the early 2000s, providing technical support and capacity-building programmes in human resource development, counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and maritime security to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). The Australians also supported Cambodia’s 2000 and 2006 DWP processes.

The DWP22 observes the grim reality that there is a rapidly evolving geostrategic and military landscape in Asia, which warrants the much-needed modernisation of the RCAF. In addition, stronger international cooperation, particularly in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs), and the development of an indigenous defence industry through a public-private partnership, are the RCAF’s key priorities. Although the DWP22 offers a generically worded assessment of the Cambodian government’s views on and strategy towards security threats, traditional and non-traditional, five observations can be made, comparing the DWP22 with its predecessor from 2006.

Border security remains at the front and centre of the RCAF’s priorities. As a small state surrounded by three bigger neighbours, Cambodia views stable borders with Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos as key to its internal security. Even though relations with its neighbours over the past few years have been stable, memories of armed skirmishes with Thailand in 2008, the military stand-off with Laos in 2019, and reports of the Vietnamese military camping along Cambodia’s southern borders remain fresh in the minds of Cambodia’s leadership. Although efforts to finish border demarcations with its neighbours have continued steadily, Cambodia still needs to complete negotiations for the remaining 14% of undemarcated borders with Laos and 10% of those with Vietnam.

Second, the RCAF continues to view international terrorism as a major threat that must be constantly checked and neutralised. Although Cambodia is not under any notable terrorist threat, the country is nevertheless concerned about local extremist networks and social grievances spurred by religious or ethnic discrimination. Religious harmonisation and closer collaboration among various defence and national security agencies need to be strengthened alongside cooperation with foreign partners such as fellow ASEAN member states, China, Japan, and Australia.

The DWP22 for the first time includes a significant focus on threats posed by cyberspace and emerging technologies. This official recognition of and new focus on cyber threats indicates an evolution for the RCAF, which has so far concentrated its resources primarily on non-digital threats. The DWP22 recognises cyber threats as potentially having harmful impacts on critical infrastructure such as Cambodia’s power plants, water supply, and transportation systems. The DWP22 notes that the RCAF cannot sit idly by while external actors are racing to harness the potential that advanced technologies like AI and 5G offer for military purposes. A proper cyber security legal framework, highly trained servicemen and women, and organisational restructuring for a cyber defence force in a digital world will be needed in the coming years.

The urgency of the need to deal with digital threats and adopt new technologies means that Cambodia must build a strong indigenous defence industry with innovation-driven and public-private sector partnerships. Hence the DWP22 lists research and development in cybersecurity as a ‘critical’ element for the RCAF, which needs to work alongside civilian experts and industry to share knowledge about cyber threats and best practices. Moreover, Cambodia desires a robust domestic defence industry to ensure self-reliance and sustainable supply chains of armament.

The DWP22 notes that the RCAF cannot sit idly by while external actors are racing to harness the potential that advanced technologies like AI and 5G offer for military purposes.

All this will require a herculean whole-of-government effort buttressed by an adequate defence budget. Cambodia plans to spend an average of US$770 million, or 2.5% of its estimated US$31 billion in GDP on defence in 2022 and increase this amount over the next five years. This is a noticeable jump from the US$641 million spent in 2021 and roughly US$635 million in 2020. By 2027, Cambodia is expected to allocate up to US$1.02 billion of its projected US$41 billion GDP on defence to effect its military modernisation.

Even though establishing a domestic defence industry will be an uphill and lengthy battle for Cambodia, it will serve two strategic purposes. First, a homegrown arms industry will ensure Cambodia has sufficient capacity to defend its sovereignty and territory regardless of external supply chain shocks. Second, a domestic arms production capability would reduce Cambodia’s potential vulnerability to any geopolitically motivated pressure from any major power to cut strategic imports of defence technology from the latter’s adversaries.

Last, the DWP22 mentions continuing to boost Cambodia’s contribution to UN PKOs in unstable regions in Africa, which would bolster the country’s global image as a peace-loving country and a proactive member of the international community. International cooperation with foreign partners is key to improving the RCAF’s HADR capabilities, but although the RCAF has dealt with domestic emergencies such as Covid-19 and natural disasters with commendable results, its ability to engage in international HADR remains limited due to the RCAF’s inadequate logistical resources and practical experience.

Cambodia’s DWP22 indicates both continuity and change for the RCAF. Cambodia envisions a digitally capable RCAF adapting to and adopting cybersecurity and emerging technologies into its operational handbook. Exactly when and how this ambition will be fulfilled remains to be seen, but recent government efforts to advance science, technology, and innovation (STI) will play essential roles in this ambitious long-term endeavour. The establishment of the National Council of STI in 2020 and the launch of the STI Roadmap 2030 last year support aims to spur national scientific research and to boost human capital, to create an innovative ecosystem for national development. Although these initiatives are civilian in nature, they will complement this fledgling effort to create an indigenous defence industry.

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