Cambodia’s Defense Policy: Challenges and the Way Ahead
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By Veasna Var

Cambodia’s Defense Policy: Challenges and the Way Ahead

Apr. 03, 2017  |     |  0 comments

According to the Australian Defense Force’s Defense Economic Trends 2016 report as seen in Figure 1, the country’s military expenditure increased yearly from just USD 100 million in 2008 to about USD 400 million in 2015.1 Defense spending continued to rise to USD 383 million in 2016 and USD 455 million in 2017 out of a USD 4.3 billion and USD 5 billion total national budget respectively.2 In defending its defense budget increase, the government asserts that the majority of the increase in defense expenditure has been allocated for the ever-increasing pension and salary costs for military personnel.3 As a result, military personnel salaries were increased. At the same time, more funds have been allocated for military facilities such as military barracks and equipment.

Figure 1. Cambodia’s Defense Budget

Source: Australian Department of Defense, Defense Economic Trends in the Asia Pacific 2016

As part of its roles in contributing to the building and developing of the nation, the RCAF has been actively contributing to the rehabilitation of physical infrastructure, building and repairing roads for communication and irrigation systems, demining, rescuing people during natural disasters and participating in international peacekeeping missions. The RCAF has been in the process of developing its capability for rapid response to both domestic and international natural disasters.4

RCAF’s Role in UN Peacekeeping

In addition to its role in addressing national threats, the RGC has committed to increasing its international credibility and prestige through increased RCAF participation in regional and international cooperation activities, including the deployment of the RCAF in support of UN operations. From being a country that had UN Peacekeepers from 1992-93, Cambodia is now one of the major contributors to UN peacekeeping operations for the maintenance of global order, security, and humanitarian assistance around the world, particularly on the African continent and the Middle East. The RGC is committed to UN Peacekeeping and this is one of the government's top priority policies. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has clearly stated that “Cambodia has been transformed from a war-torn nation grateful to receiving assistance from UN forces to one which now proudly contributes to UN peace-keeping missions in other troubled countries.”5

The RCAF has a unique experience and capability in the field of demining. After emerging from decades of war, Cambodia is a country with millions of long-buried landmines and other explosives. This experience has placed Cambodia in a good position to contribute its niche capability in demining to UN peace support operations. According to Irwin Loy:

Cambodia is one of the most contaminated countries in the world when it comes to land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). But with almost two decades of experience slowly cleaning away that legacy from contaminated rice fields and jungle brush across the country, Cambodian authorities have also become reluctant experts. They are now hoping to use that expertise to help other developing countries afflicted with similar problems.6 Similarly, Mely Caballero-Anthony and Holly Haywood write:

“Cambodia’s role in demining in peace operations is therefore indicative of the value of specialized capacities in fragile post‐conflict environments. Given its tragic legacy of war, Cambodia has developed competencies in demining and subsequently participated in its first UN peacekeeping mission in 2006 when it deployed combat engineers to Sudan to clear landmines. It has continued to supply combat engineers to Sudan and has since also provided personnel to Chad and the Central African Republic. In November 2010, Cambodian peacekeepers were deployed to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon to provide de‐mining and construction support. As was put by the UN Resident Coordinator in Phnom Penh at the time, its represents ‘an important step forward in Cambodia’s transition from a recipient country of peacekeepers to one that deploys highly skilled experts to assist in other countries where the need is great.’”7

According to the DWP, the Cambodian government has directed the RCAF to enhance Cambodian international credibility and national prestige through increased participation in regional and international cooperation activities, to include deployment of the armed forces in support of United Nations operations. Strictly adhering to the RGC’s Strategic Guidance to integrate Cambodia into international community, RCAF has been actively trained and equipped its military under the auspices of Cambodia’s friends and partner countries, in particular the US Government’s Global Peace Operations Initiative. As a result, Cambodia has sent its troops to a number of hotspots in the world.

Cambodia made its first successful contribution to a UN peacekeeping overseas mission in 2006. The strategic rationale for the RGC’s expansion of the RCAF’s international role was elaborated in the Cambodian defense strategic objective document of the Ministry of National Defense of Cambodia in 2002:

“With the evolution of global security trends and apart from its contribution to security and development for the nation, the RCAF must have another duty: engagement in international affairs. Therefore, the new objectives of the defense policy are Security, Development and International Cooperation: The objective of international cooperation is consistent with the Royal Government’s policy of integrating Cambodia into the international community. From now on, the RCAF must be more active in getting engaged in the international environment, which is an important activity for promoting its prestige. Enhancing international cooperation is not only a task of building good relations or of strengthening alliances between country and country, but it also indicates our good‐will in the cause of fostering peace, stability and the protection of mutual interest among neighbouring countries and those in the same region.”8

Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that “the RCAF is the leading force in promoting Cambodia’s prestige on the international arena through participation in peace and humanitarian missions within the framework of the United Nations request.”9 The RCAF has actively engaged in peacekeeping operations under the framework of the United Nations since 2006 and has been sent to other countries such as Sudan, Chad, Central Africa, and Lebanon, where Cambodia led a second leading military UN mission among ASEAN nations.10

Security Trends in the Asia-Pacific Region

Some emerging security trends have become important issues for the region. Terrorism remains a pre-eminent national and global security threat, especially after September 11, 2001. Cambodia has classified terrorism as one of its top national security concerns.11 As a result, in 2002, Cambodia official published its policy on countering international terrorism.12

Maritime security threats are common issues in the Asia Pacific region. The region continues to face a wide range of related maritime security threats, such as illegal exploitation of national resources, illegal activities in protected areas, maritime terrorism, piracy, and maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Cambodia has also placed maritime security as one of its top security issues.13 Having limited capability to respond, Cambodia is a transit point for human trafficking, drug smuggling, and other illegal activities. It can also be a potential shelter and transit point for international terrorist groups.14

The region also faces other non-traditional security threats in addition to terrorism. These include transnational crimes, epidemics, and national disasters. Geographical security issues involving territorial disputes with neighboring countries remain a threat to Cambodia’s current and future national security. The overlapping maritime claims between Cambodia and Thailand present significant challenges for Cambodia’s economic development as Cambodia remains highly optimistic that offshore natural resources could significantly boost its economy.15

The Way Ahead for RCAF

By all emerging trend indications, and by understanding Cambodia’s future security challenges, the RCAF must be prepared to meet the national strategic objectives in the 21st century. It is recommended that the following changes be made to the RCAF’s mission. The RCAF, particularly the Army, has done well. The RCAF is the largest standing force, and has achieved its missions such as defending territorial sovereignty from external invasions and transnational security threats, performed UN peacekeeping operations, and contributed to maritime security and disaster relief operations. At the same time, the RCAF has faced a wide range of challenges in terms of preparedness, readiness, and capability because of limited equipment and resources. The development of core skills and fundamental systems are required to focus and sustain a credible military force capable of ensuring the defense of Cambodia’s national territory.

As for counter-terrorism, although there is no pressing terrorist problem in Cambodia, it is still important for the RCAF to build and retain the capability to deter any new or emerging terrorist threat. Peacekeeping operations align well with Cambodia’s aspiration to participate in regional and international agreements to contribute to regional and global peace and stability as well as to enhance Cambodia’s international credibility and national prestige through cooperation in peacekeeping operations.

The RCAF should have only one or two army units in the Phnom Penh area. Concentrating on fewer units will allow the RCAF leadership to design, build, and test “model” units prior to introducing large forces. Possible candidates are one battalion of the Royal Gendarmes for peacekeeping and the 9-11 Brigade for counter-terrorism. Moreover, the RCAF needs to coordinate and work with the Ministry of Interior (Homeland Security) to defend against specific terrorist threats by protecting strategic locations such as airports and foreign embassies.

As a poor country, the RCAF’s transformation will be a challenge for Cambodia without foreign assistance: “The RCAF must continue to strengthen and expand cooperation with security partners in the region and in the international arena by using bilateral and multilateral mechanisms based on unbiased political or ideological grounds and in the spirit of mutual interests.” The RGC stresses on the importance of comprehensive cooperation in bilateral and multilateral frameworks in order to develop the RCAF’s professionalism. Cambodia’s Defense Strategy Review 2013 stresses:

“The RCAF must increase an in-depth cooperation with security partner countries to ensure the sustainability of scholarship offers and other skill courses to develop human resources. Efforts should also be made to seek other support for the defense force. The exchange of study tours, military students and intelligence information should be increased. Protocols, conventions, memorandums of understanding, agreements, joint statements, joint training exercise programs should all be expanded including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, peacekeeping operations, counter terrorism.”16

In terms of the necessity for the RCAF to engage in multilateral cooperation, the document also states that:

“The RCAF must continue to cooperate with security partner countries in the framework of multilateral mechanisms, seminars and training exercises, internally and externally, to increase capabilities to jointly strengthen regional security, especially peacekeeping operations (demining, engineering, policing), counter terrorism, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (health and civil engineering), etc., and to enhance the prestige of the Kingdom of Cambodia in the international arena.”17


To conclude, the RCAF is in the process of transforming into a professional armed force that is outward-looking. The security outlook of the Kingdom of Cambodia has changed due to the evolving regional and global security environment. In the current external environment, the RCAF has played an increasingly important role as the leading force to support the nation’s strategic objectives and in implementing national policy. Defending the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the country from external invasion and transnational threats, and contributing to national stability, safety, and security are primary roles of the RCAF. As part of its international obligations, the RCAF has a strong commitment to combating terrorism and participating in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

Cambodia is in need of assistance from friendly countries to actualize its RCAF reform program as elaborated in the Cambodian defense documents. As a small and poor state in the region, Cambodia usually makes practical choices for its people by seeking to capitalize on its relations with China, the US, and any other countries that may suit its interests.18 Therefore, the RGC should strengthen military cooperation with friends. Different friendly countries bring different defense cooperation to the improvement of Cambodia’s military professionalism. For example, the US has provided support in a wide range of military cooperation areas to improve RCAF’s capability in humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, maritime security, and in broadening Cambodia’s counterterrorism strategy. The RGC should also develop an effective military defense cooperation plan that provides priority areas for international assistance. This will lead to effective international military cooperation.

This is the second of a two-part paper. The first part can be found here.


1. Australian Department of Defense. (August 2016). Defense economic trends in the Asia Pacific 2016. Retrieved from

2. Grevatt, J. (November 18, 2016). Cambodia boosts 2017 defense budget. IHS Jane's Defense Weekly.

3. Ibid.

4. Chheang, V. (2010). Cambodia security and defense policy. In Asia Pacific Countries’ Outlook and Its Implications for the Defense Sector. National Institute for Defense Studies, Japan, NIDS Joint Research Series no.5, p. 7.

5. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. (n.d.). Cambodia candidate for the United Nations Security Council 2013-2014. Cambodian Embassy in United Kingdom. Retrieved from

6. Loy, I. (October 26, 2010). Development: Cambodian deminers now train others. Global Information Network.

7. Caballero-Anthony, M. and Haywood, H. (2010). Defining ASEAN’s role in peace operations: Helping to bring peacebuilding ‘upstream’?, Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence, Civil-Military Working Paper no. 3/2010. Retrieved from

8. Cambodian Ministry of National Defense. (2006). Cambodia Defense White Paper: Defending the Kingdom of Cambodia 2006: Security, Development and International Cooperation. Phnom Penh: Royal Government of Cambodia.

9. Ibid., Introduction.

10. Thayer, C. (April 25, 2014). ASEAN and UN peacekeeping. The Diplomat.

11. ASEAN Regional Forum. (July 2013). Annual Security Outlook 2013. ASEAN Document File, p. 24.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Chheang, V. (January 2010). Cambodia: Maritime security challenges and priorities. Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace Working Paper no.32, p. 9. Retrieved from

15. Annual Security Outlook 2013.

16. Ministry of National Defense of Cambodia. (2013). Cambodia’s Defense Strategic Review 2013. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

17. Ibid.

18. Cambodia’s ‘postponed’ exercises and the US pivot to Asia (August 22, 2013). ASPI The Strategist. Retrieved from

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