The Khmer Times, 13 June 2016
The new leaders of Vietnam have taken a proactive approach strengthening bilateral ties with Cambodia and Laos.
It marks a new momentum in Vietnam’s diplomacy towards its smaller neighbors, traditional friends of Vietnam.
Last month, newly appointed Minister of Public Security To Lam visited Cambodia to strengthen security cooperation, particularly in fighting organized and transnational crimes, smuggling, and drug trafficking.
The security agencies of both countries also signed a supplementary document for the 2016 cooperation plan.
Early this month, newly appointed Defense Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich made his first overseas trip to Cambodia to cement defense ties between the two countries.
Defense ministers of both countries exchanged views on the regional security outlook and committed to concretizing the annual action plan of bilateral defense cooperation for 2016, which was signed in December last year.
This year alone, 1,500 Cambodian military personnel will be trained in Vietnam. Vietnam will also support building military infrastructure, particularly military camps across the Kingdom.
More importantly, the newly appointed President of Vietnam, Tran Dai Quang, is scheduled to make his first overseas trip to Laos and Cambodia this month to deepen the bilateral comprehensive partnership with Vietnam’s immediate neighbors.
The visits clearly signal Vietnam’s interest in claiming its regional role, particularly in Indochina. Vietnam and Cambodia are consolidating their bilateral relations with the slogan “Good neighbors, traditional friendship, comprehensive cooperation, long-term stability.”
Cambodia, which used to be under the influence of Vietnam from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, had started gradually shifting away from Vietnam towards China.
Although Cambodia is trying to balance its external relations with both China and Vietnam, the reality on the ground shows that China has secured stronger economic and political influence in the Kingdom.
The competition for power between Vietnam and China has intensified, especially since 2012 when Cambodia, the then rotating chair of Asean, failed to issue a joint statement due to the different views of the Asean member states on the South China Sea disputes, leaving Vietnam disappointed.
Since the end of the Cold War and the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, Vietnam’s influence on Cambodia has gradually receded. The new Cambodian government established after the UN-supervised election started expanding diplomatic relations and international partnerships with the wider international community.
In the aftermath of the armed conflict in July 1997 between the royalist Funcinpec party and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), Cambodia was under strong diplomatic and economic pressure from the West and Japan to quickly return to political reconciliation and the democratic path.
China started to pour millions of dollars in aid to court the CPP-led government. Since 1997, Sino-Cambodian relations have rapidly developed. Both countries reached a landmark comprehensive strategic partnership in 2010.
Since then, China has had strong leverage in Cambodia. China has become the top trading partner and foreign investor, and the largest aid donor to Cambodia.
Knowing that it is impossible to compete with China for influence in Cambodia on the economic front, Vietnam gives more emphasis to security and defense cooperation with Cambodia.
Vietnam has an advantage in building close defense and security ties with Cambodia due to historical connections, strategic trust, and social capital. Vietnam’s security apparatus has maintained good and strong relations with its counterpart in Cambodia.
Strategic trust, close communication, mutual support and personal relationships are the foundation of the bilateral security cooperation and partnership.
China is catching up with Vietnam in building closer ties with Cambodia’s defense sector. China is now Cambodia’s largest donor of military aid, from providing military equipment to building military facilities and capacity building.
Vietnam is likely going to implement a multi-layered bilateral engagement across all sectors including different political actors. Exploring a constructive working relationship with the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) would help Vietnam maintain stable bilateral ties with Cambodia in the long run.
Future domestic political changes in Cambodia will pose challenges for Vietnam. If the opposition party wins the 2018 general election, the bilateral ties will be threatened, but not for long, as the CNRP should be able to build trust and a mechanism to stabilize the bilateral relations with Vietnam based on mutual interest and respect.
The completion of the land border demarcation, regulating and integrating Vietnamese migrants in Cambodia, maritime security cooperation, and maritime boundary demarcation are some of the main issues that need to be collectively addressed in order to pave the way for the future advancement of the bilateral relationship.
Vietnam will not stand quietly seeing the strong Chinese influence in its immediate neighbors. Through deepening the bilateral comprehensive relationship, particularly in defense and security cooperation, Vietnam believes it is able to maintain its presence and leverage to check the rising influence of China in the Kingdom.