PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - China will hold its first-ever exercise with Cambodia's navy next week, in swift succession to a visit by the military vessels of Beijing's old enemy Japan, the latest sign of China's growing presence in a region where maritime tension is rising.
Three warships carrying 737 Chinese sailors will dock on Monday at a port in Preah Sihanouk province, just over a day after the scheduled departure of three vessels of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force now holding cultural exchanges with Cambodian navy personnel.
While attention focuses on China's activities in the East and South China Seas, Beijing has been busy strengthening defense and economic ties with Cambodia, from which it is increasing receiving political support, particularly within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping.
The visit by the warships come amid regional jitters over China's deployment of surface-to-air missiles to a disputed South China Sea island it controls, which Beijing said on Wednesday were "necessary self-defense facilities".
The Chinese navy will conduct a rescue exercise for just a few hours, close to where the Japanese are now docked.
"This will be a big cooperation and joint exercise training in rescue operations," Cambodia's deputy navy chief, Vice Admiral Vann Bunneang, told Reuters. "This is to boost readiness for when boats sink and natural disasters occur."
China jointly runs a military academy in Cambodia and has been supplying its armed forces with helicopters, shoulder-fired rockets and vehicles, while sending cadets to China for training.
Analysts say the United States is concerned about Cambodia becoming a vassal state that could do Beijing's regional bidding in the consensus-led ASEAN, a notion Phnom Penh rejects.
Washington has sought to keep Cambodia onside with its own military exercises, despite friction over the country's poor human rights record. In November it held a sixth search and rescue drill involving 200 U.S. and 300 Cambodian sailors.
Asked about China's exercises, the Japanese embassy in Cambodia said in a statement it would not comment on the activities of a third country.
Visits by Japanese and Chinese ships showed competition for influence and Cambodia should be cautious in managing its future ties, said Ou Virak of the Future Forum think tank.
"The question is actually how to deal with this when Japan wants a piece of influence, while China tries to do as much as they can, both financially and militarily," he said.
"We need to be very careful, we need to balance relationships with all of them and eventually, we need to be self-reliant."
Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez