PRIME Minister Hun Sen marked an important milestone in deepening traditional, bilateral ties with Vietnam during his official visit to Hanoi last week.
The bilateral trust and friendship prevail amid geopolitical changes and turbulence. Cambodia’s foreign policy gives priority to neighbouring countries.
Hun Sen’s elaborations on investment potentials in Cambodia and quick response to the suggestions made by his Vietnamese counterpart at the first business and investment forum were remarkable. His decisive leadership is commendable.
In addition to the eight agreements on economic cooperation, Cambodia agreed to explore the possibility of developing a special economic zone along the border, preferably on the Cambodian side, in order to attract more Vietnamese investors and entrepreneurs. Of course, the project will be market-driven. If it is realised, it would be another landmark project connecting the two countries and peoples.
Vietnam has capital, technology and knowledge in helping Cambodia to develop its lacklustre processing and manufacturing sector. Agroindustry is a potential area of cooperation, given that Cambodia is the main supplier of raw materials.
Another interesting initiative is the annual meeting between the Prime Minister with the Vietnamese business community before the lunar new year. This aims to provide an opportunity for Vietnamese investors and entrepreneurs to exchange views directly with the Prime Minister.
The meeting between the Vietnamese business community with the Council for Development of Cambodia (CDC), one or twice a year, will be also implemented. Vietnamese’s ambassador to Phnom Penh will lead the Vietnamese delegate — this is similar to what Japan has done with the CDC.
The two legal documents on border demarcation were instrumental in legalising the border demarcation, which is in 84 percent completion. The two agreements are: The Supplementary Treaty to the 1985 Treaty on the Delimitation of the National Boundary and the 2005 Supplementary Treaty; and the Protocol on the Demarcation and Marker Planting of the Land Boundary.
The border issue has been the key constraint in bilateral relations. The politicisation of the border issue has further complicated the negotiation and demarcation process. The opposition party in Cambodia has been vocal and critical of the issue.
Respecting international law, promoting bilateral negotiation based on the spirit of mutual respect and interest, maintaining the status-quo are the interests and strategies of Cambodia, a small state flanked by two big neighbours.
The remaining 16 percent of border demarcation is a challenge due to deep differences — both technically and politically — between the two countries. Different political forces might use this to stir nationalism against each other. It is therefore crucial for both countries to find common ground to reach an agreement on this.
On international issues, both countries share several common positions such as the emphasis on the importance of Asean solidarity, unity and centrality. Both sides agreed to closely coordinate and support each other for Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEM and Vietnam’s chairmanship of Asean in 2020.
Concerning the Mekong River, both sides agreed to enhance cooperation to effectively and sustainably manage the trans-boundary river, which is the lifeline for millions of people, by adhering to the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin and other existing instruments.
Both sides also pledged to work closely to finalise negotiations on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is expected to be concluded by end of this year.
On the South China Sea, both sides reiterated Asean’s positions on the South China Sea, especially with regards to peaceful settlement of dispute and the respect of international law.
Cambodia has refrained from getting deeply getting involved in the South China Sea issue, given that Cambodia is not a claimant state. Cambodia’s position has been clear that only the claimant states can effectively resolve the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea and Asean is not a court.
Some countries should not expect Asean to resolve sovereignty disputes. Asean was not created to fulfil such a function. Asean is not a supra-national institution. It is an inter-governmental association.
The Cambodia-Thailand border dispute in 2008 and 2011 was a case in point. At that time, Asean did not contribute much to the conflict resolution. Cambodia was forced to bring the case to the International Court of Justice.
Any countries that intend to force Cambodia to take sides on the South China Sea and any other international sovereignty-related issues, would face failure or even backfire. Bilateral negotiations between the parties concerned and international law are the most viable solutions.
Cambodia’s positions on various regional issues are largely in line with those of Asean priorities.