Cambodia’s balance between China, Vietnam

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Maintaining a flexible, stable equilibrium between key strategic and economic partners is a matter of long-term survival for a small nation like Cambodia. The Cambodian ruling elites are fully aware that losing balance and neutrality will lead to political instability at home given the fact that Cambodia is very much vulnerable to rising geopolitical competition and structural uncertainties. However implementing a balanced foreign policy is not easy at all and requires continuous examination and re-examination of Cambodia’s positioning in a fluid international system.

There is considerate concern that the intensifying geopolitical competition between China and Vietnam will trigger political instability in Cambodia as the Kingdom potentially becomes a contesting ground for these two countries – in the competition for their own sphere of influence. The key question here is how Cambodia can smartly navigate through such challenges and uncertainties. Theoretically, small states tend to hedge within a context of increasing uncertainties.

Now, Cambodia is thriving to build stable balanced relations with both China and Vietnam.

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Historically, since its inception, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has a deep and strong relationship with Vietnam. But since 1997, the CPP has also deepened its relationship with China to serve its diversification strategy. The relationship has been deepening and widening notably after reaching a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement in 2010. Yet such a close partnership with China should not be interpreted as Phnom Penh kowtowing to Beijing.

The fast deepening ties between Cambodia and China is a cause of concern among some countries such as Vietnam, Japan, and the United States. The US in particular has drawn its own conclusion that Cambodia has lost its sovereignty and independence to China. Therefore the US’s reactions to Cambodia’s domestic politics need to be also understood from the angle of geopolitics – which is viewed as Washington’s reflection of the United States’ deep concern over China’s increasing political clout in Cambodia.

Japan and Vietnam have been regarded as major economic and strategic partners that can help Cambodia implement its “light” hedging strategy. We need to understand first the foreign policy of Cambodia from the prism of a small nation’s diplomacy, which simply means a small country does not put all its eggs into one basket. Hedging and diversification strategy will remain a key strategy. Any major power that aims to interfere in Cambodia’s politics and force the Kingdom to take sides could face a backlash.

Cambodia-Vietnam relations faced a certain degree of misunderstanding and experienced tension especially after a fierce disagreement over the South China Sea issue in 2012 when the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45 years of history. Vietnam together with the Philippines reportedly put pressure on Cambodia at that time to adopt a common position on the South China Sea, with an explicit attempt to counter China’s maritime assertiveness.

However, mutual understanding between Cambodia and Vietnam has remarkably improved since a leadership change took place at the 12th Party Congress of Vietnam in early 2016. Hanoi started to have a more comprehensive look at Cambodia’s national interests and its foreign policy towards immediate neighbors, major powers, and Asean.

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Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea could be explained not only from the lenses of China’s political clout and power asymmetry but also from the lens of Cambodia’s realistic view of the role of Asean in managing sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. Its position has been consistent that sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea need to be dealt with by the direct claimant states. Asean does not have a mandate to solve sovereignty disputes but can just provide a platform for dialogue, confidence building and prevent conflicts or tensions from escalating.

The conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in the near future will significantly strengthen trust and confidence among the claimant states as well as between China and Asean.

Cambodia will continue to maintain a stable strategic equilibrium between China and Vietnam although it is impossible for Cambodia to maintain a strategic equidistance between the two. Beijing is gaining a strategic upper hand over Hanoi and this trend will continue in coming years and decades in tandem with China’s global power projection. China has secured its advantages in the economic and political sectors while Vietnam still holds its relative advantage in security cooperation.

Whatever form and shape the geopolitical competition between China and Vietnam might evolve, Cambodia must keep adjusting its foreign policy based on its core national interests. It needs to be noted that the determining factor is the evolution of domestic politics. The solidarity within the CPP and national reconciliation and unity will define the destiny of the country. Cambodia cannot effectively adapt to fast-changing regional geopolitics without securing order and prosperity at home.

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