Cambodia-Vietnam ties: From ‘liberator’ to a major trade partner

Cheunboran Chanborey / No Comments Share:
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen embraces his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc after their meeting in Hanoi on December 7. Reuters

There has been an ebb and flow in Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam, 40 years after Vietnamese troops helped ‘liberate’ the country from the yoke of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, writes Cheunboran Chanborey.

This December marks the 40th anniversary of Vietnam’s military adventure in Cambodia in 1978, followed by its occupation until September 1989. The military intervention remains a controversial topic within and outside Cambodia. To some, it was an invasion of Cambodian sovereignty. To others, it was the liberation of Cambodian people from the genocidal Pol Pot regime.

Arguably, Vietnam’s military intervention in Cambodia was driven, according to Ralf Emmers, by both its “hegemonic ambitions in Indochina and defensive consideration” against the Khmer Rouge regime of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), backed by People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In fact, immediately after capturing Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the DK’s relations with Vietnam was characterised by growing mistrust. Despite being allies during the initial years of their struggle, Khmer Rouge leaders did not trust their Vietnamese counterparts due to concerns over border issues and especially Vietnam’s grand strategic question of an Indochinese Federation.

As the mutual trust severed, Cambodia-Vietnam border skirmishes worsened. In this context, Pol Pot’s visit to China in 1977 was seen as an attempt to further strengthen the DK-PRC alliance against Vietnam and thus a strategic threat to Hanoi. Therefore, in response to DK attacks, Vietnam launched a counterattack in mid-December 1977 and then signed a 25-year treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union in November 1978 to balance against the Chinese threat.

In the meantime, the Vietnamese began grooming some defectors from the DK as a government in exile, known as the United Front for National Salvation of Kampuchea (UFNSK). On Christmas Day of 1978, the UFNSK with the support from over 100,000 Vietnamese forces attacked the DK on several fronts and forced the later to abandon the capital city of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. This marked the demise of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Therefore, January 7 has been a political significance for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – UFNSK’s successor – which considers it as the second birthday of the Cambodian people. Prime Minister Hun Sen once said that, “the commemoration of January 7 is not a monopolised celebration for the CPP, but for the general public because it was a great movement to liberate the nation and Cambodian lives.”

Not all Cambodians, however, attach the same importance to this historic date. The critics and political opponents of the CPP often ask provocatively: Is it the celebration of life and liberty or the commemoration of Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia? This question is always raised when the Kingdom celebrates the January 7 victory.

Cambodia-Vietnam Ties since 1993

In the post-UNTAC era, Cambodia attempted to maintain cordial relations with neighbouring countries, including Vietnam. In fact, the CPP attached importance to Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam as it continued to benefit from Hanoi’s assistance and cooperation.

Moreover, it was reported that Vietnam was the strongest supporter for Cambodia’s early entry into Asean as the Kingdom’s membership in the regional grouping was suspended following the July 1997 armed clashes. Eventually, Cambodia became the tenth member of Asean in Hanoi on April 30, 1999.

In 2005, Cambodia and Vietnam adopted the expression of “good neighbourliness, traditional friendship, comprehensive and long-term cooperation” as the framework for their bilateral relations. A Supplementary Border Treaty was also signed which laid the foundation for the two countries to develop Special Economic Zones along their border. As a result, bilateral trade grew remarkably, from $184 million in 2001 to $940 million in 2006, making Vietnam Cambodia’s third largest trading partner within Asean. Vietnam was also Cambodia’s tenth largest foreign investor, with total investment of $114 million in 2007.

As Cambodia and Vietnam celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations in 2017, the bilateral trade reached $3.8 billion. More importantly, Vietnam was Cambodia’s greatest source of foreign direct investment within Asean and second in the world, with a total investment of $582million. Diplomatically, Phnom Penh and Hanoi continue to maintain and promote Cambodia-Vietnam bilateral ties through frequent exchange of high-level visits and mutual support and assistance at regional and international forums.

Constraints on the bilateral relationship

Having said that, there have been signs to suggest that Phnom Penh-Hanoi ties have lately been no longer cosy. Tense Cambodia-Vietnam relations have been noticed since 2012. The tensions might be the result of strategic divergence and thus mistrust as well as sensitive issues related to border disputes and ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia.

Strategically, Cambodia and Vietnam have recently taken very different approaches towards the changing security landscape of the Asia-Pacific. Vietnam has heavily hedged against the rise of China through the strengthening of its economic and defence ties with the US, Japan and India. Hanoi has also proactively used regional multilateral arrangements, including Asean, as part of its institutional balancing strategy against Chinese threat.

In contrast, Cambodia has been increasingly dependent on China for economic and defence assistance. The Cambodia-Thailand border conflict from 2008 to 2011 pushed Cambodia to form a strategic partnership with China due to Phnom Penh’s perception of a revived threat from Thailand and its diminishing confidence in Asean.

Strikingly, Cambodia and Vietnam have adopted very different approaches towards the maritime dispute in the South China Sea, which involves China and four Asean member states, including Vietnam. Cambodia, as a non-claimant state, is not interested in having this issue dominate regional multilateral diplomacy that might upset Beijing and harm good ties between China and Asean.

Therefore, Cambodia has occasionally refused to join Vietnam and some other Asean members to internationalize the South China Sea. Most noticeably, the maritime dispute caused a deadlock during the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 as they failed to issue a joint communiqué. This fiasco prompted Phnom Penh and Hanoi to respectively express disappointment at one another.

Moreover, anti-Vietnamese sentiment continues to be one of the most explosive issues in Cambodian politics because of Vietnam’s alleged encroachment into Cambodian territory and the ethnic Vietnamese in the Kingdom. Worst still, Cambodian politicians, especially the opposition parties, have more often than not manipulated the anti-Vietnam rhetoric.

Recently, border issues flared up in Cambodian politics after the 2013 election. In June 2015, more than a dozen people were injured when Cambodian activists and monks, led by two CNRP lawmakers, clashed with Vietnamese authorities and villagers along the border.

The ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia have also been a daunting issue in Cambodia-Vietnam relationship since 1953. It is reported that Hanoi has expressed its dissatisfaction over actions by Cambodian authorities to evacuate around 2,300 ethnic Vietnamese from a floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake. Also, it had been reported that Cambodian leaders have been frustrated by demands from Vietnamese leaders for the protection of Vietnam nationals in Cambodia – which is always raised in all their bilateral meetings.

Way forward

As people say, “we can change friends but not our neighbours.” Cambodia and Vietnam have no other choice than to live and co-exist peacefully based on the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and win-win cooperation. Despite recent efforts by Cambodian and Vietnamese leaders to promote mutual understanding, strategic mistrust between the two countries remains.

Therefore, there is an urgent need for both countries to engage in constructive dialogues at all levels. In addition to political and strategic consultation at the top leadership, which has encouragingly been frank and constructive, exchanges among academic researchers, youth leaders, community activists and students alike need to be further promoted.

More importantly, track 1.5 consultation mechanisms between the two countries should be established. In this regard, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry’s newly established National Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations and Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, among others, should organize strategic dialogues and conduct joint research projects. These would help narrow strategic mistrust and miscalculation between these two neighbouring countries.

Cheunboran Chanborey is a PhD scholar at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.



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