Cambodia and China Hold Largest Golden Dragon Exercise to Date

On May 16th, units from the Royal Cambodian Military and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began the 2024 iteration of the annual Golden Dragon joint exercise. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Commander Admiral Gao Xiucheng and Royal Cambodian Military Vong Pisen presided over the exercise’s opening ceremony. The theme for this year’s exercise is “joint counterterrorism operations and humanitarian relief” and will end on June 1st. Cambodia and China began holding the joint exercise in 2016 but canceled the exercises in 2021 and 2022 due to COVID-19. However, the difference between this year’s Gold Dragon and the five past exercises is that this year’s exercise is the largest exercise held to date.

People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Commander Admiral Gao Xiucheng and Royal Cambodian Military Vong Pisen saluting during Golden Dragon 2024’s opening ceremony (Photo: AP/Heng Sinith)

Exercise Details

The exercise is scheduled to occur over a 15-day period at two locations in Kampong Chhnang and Preah Sihanouk provinces. The Golden Dragon is divided between land and sea components. At least 1,315 Cambodian soldiers and 760 Chinese troops will participate in the exercise. At least 11 Royal Cambodian Navy (RCN) vessels, three People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships, and two helicopters will participate in the sea portion of the exercises. The exercise will consist of several activities spread out between land and sea over the next 15 days. The activities include live fire exercises involving small arms, crew-served weapons, and PPZ-10 gun mortar systems.

Several CSK-181s light tactical vehicles, two tactical trucks, and one PPZ-10 self-propelled gun mortar inside the CNS Qilian Shan’s cargo hold (Photo: X/@jesusfroman)

Other activities include blockade, mobile, and surveillance operations; various military exchanges; VIP protection and hostage rescue exercises; demining exercises; and disease control operations. The vessels that will participate in the exercise are one Yuzhao-class (Type-071) LPD, the CNS Qilianshan, and two Jiangdao-class (Type-056) corvettes already based at Ream Naval Base. The LPD transported 300 men and several vehicles, including PPZ-10s, Mengshi CSK-181s, and various tactical trucks.

Royal Cambodian Army and People’s Liberation Army Army personnel standing during Golden Dragon-2024 opening ceremony (Photo: X, The Cambodia China Times/@Hakaka_ka)

Some of the exercises, such as hostage rescue operations, raids against mountain camps, and maritime anti-hijacking, were divided into three phases: the adaptation phase, the command phase, and the live-action phases. Other activities included small arms exchanges, such as the People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA) soldiers instructing their Royal Cambodian Army (RCA) counterparts on how to operate the QBZ-95 rifle and the QBU-191 designated marksman rifle.

PLA soldier showing Royal Cambodian Army soldier how to hold QBU-191 designated marksmen rifle

Furthermore, both the CRA and the PLAA also held exchanges regarding how they operate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The PLAA side used six drones to demonstrate how they conducted target reconnaissance, target guidance, and battlefield communications. The PLAA soldiers also showed the CRA soldiers how to takeoff and land the UAVs, along with the flight patterns they could fly in. Both sides also conducted exchanges regarding various countermeasures they employ against various UAVs. The soldiers also held exchanges regarding how to use medical equipment, first aid techniques, and other equipment. The PPZ-10s also conducted a live fire event, where they fired several rounds at a target on the side of a mountain.

PLAA displays of various drone used or demonstrated during Gold Dragon 2024 exercise

Other PLA Activities

The PLA also held other events in Cambodia during the military exercise; the first event occurred on May 19th, when the PLAN’s 83rd fleet arrived in Sihanoukville. The fleet consisted of two vessels: one Type 071 LPD, the CNS Jinggangshan, and one Dadu-class (Type 680) training ship, the CNS Qi Jiguang, which will be at the port from May 19th to May 23rd. The vessels are currently conducting a regional training cruise with Cambodia and Timor Leste from early May to mid-June to interact and train with cadets from other countries. The Chinese ambassador to Cambodia, Wang Wentian, and Chinese military officers gathered to meet the vessels. Representatives from Chinese institutions, Overseas Chinese Associations, Cambodian military officers and personnel, and around 300 Cambodian and Chinese people also met the fleet. The fleet’s commander visited the Royal Cambodian Navy Commanding General and the Cambodian Ministry of Defense, where he participated in a welcome luncheon. The Chinese officers also visited the Cambodian Naval Academy, held various friendship competitions, took ship tours, and held deck receptions.

Dadu-class (Type 680) training ship CNS Qi Jiguang in Sihanoukville port on May 19th

On May 20th, a group of PLA medical officers conducted Cambodia’s first robot-assisted cerebral hemorrhage surgery at the RCA’s Preah Ket Mealea Hospital. The doctors operated on a Chinese citizen who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while in Cambodia for work. The Chinese medical team remotely consulted their counterparts from PLA Naval Medical University’s Second Affiliated Hospital to develop a robot-assisted surgical scheme. However, the deployed medical team coordinated the transport of equipment from China to the capital, Phnom Penh, due to the Cambodian hospital lacking the necessary equipment. The medical team received real-time, remote guidance from Chinese experts and coordinated with the hospital’s neurosurgery team to complete the surgery.

PLAN and Royal Cambodian Military doctors pose after completing 1st robot-assisted cerebral hemorrhage surgery

Analysis

This year’s iteration of Gold Dragon is the most significant exercise Cambodia and China held because it illustrates how both countries are expanding their military relationship. The exercise may also point to the kind of military presence China will have in Cambodia. The exercise is the largest in terms of personnel and equipment since it began in 2016, especially in terms of naval vessels. The two Jiangdao-class corvettes’ participation in the exercise further points to the PLA having a military presence at the base. Furthermore, the corvettes’ actions after the exercise would also reveal if China will permanently station vessels at the base or if the deployments will be on a rotational basis.

The vessels have been at Ream Naval Base since December 2023 to conduct a “training mission” with the RCN. By the end of the exercise, the vessels would be there for approximately six months, which would put them at the end of a rotational deployment. If the vessels return to the base, then it would indicate that either the vessels will be permanently deployed there or will have an extended deployment. However, both vessels would likely be required to return to China to conduct maintenance on the vessels since Cambodia does not have the facilities to conduct maintenance on the corvettes. Furthermore, there is no indication that the base currently has the capability to logistically sustain the vessels’ long-term deployment.

While the Golden Dragon exercise is significant, the other military activities also point to China continuing to build upon its close relationship with Cambodia. The 19th visit by the CNS Jinggangshan and the CNS Qi Jiguang shows how China will use training missions to increase interoperability between the Cambodian and Chinese militaries. Specifically, the training mission will allow China to gain and cultivate influence among the Cambodian cadets by conducting a joint training voyage. For example, the mission would allow China to gain influence over how the RCN conducts various naval missions. This influence would extend to the doctrine and tactics the RCN would use during naval operations, as well as an increased willingness to conduct joint operations with the PLA. China would then translate the influence into larger gains, such as selling or donating naval vessels and other equipment to the RCN.

The impromptu surgery jointly conducted by both the PLA and RCA’s medical teams also provides further evidence that China will use these activities to build its influence in Cambodia. The surgery allowed Cambodian doctors to meet and interact with doctors from PLA Navy Medical University’s Second Affiliated Hospital. Furthermore, the Cambodian team also received training on the process of planning and conducting surgeries, such as cerebral hemorrhage surgery. The operation also allowed China to show its medical capabilities to the Cambodian medical team. The interactions would allow China to gain more influence by showing the Cambodian medical team the processes and equipment involved in planning surgeries. China would likely donate the robot used by the team to the hospital and provide training to effectively operate it. The training would include sending some of the Cambodian team to China for a course and a shadow residency program to operate the machine. The program would allow China to further build trust and influence in Cambodia by teaching its medical doctors how to conduct surgeries.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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