Half a Century of Hot, Cold Ties with Vietnam

The Khmer Times, 24 April 2017

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc makes a state visit Cambodia today to reaffirm unwavering and time-honored friendship between the two neighbors.
This year is a special year. It marks the 50th anniversary of the bilateral diplomatic relations. The relationships have ebbed and flowed, depending on changing domestic politics and geopolitics.
Mr. Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Hun Sen will preside over the inauguration ceremony of Chrey Thom Bridge in Kandal province to commemorate the anniversary. Mr. Xuan Phuc will also meet with other senior Cambodian leaders.
The main talking points likely relate to trade and investment ties, border development and demarcation, comprehensive security cooperation, transboundary water resource management, and socio-cultural exchanges.
Both countries may also exchange views on regional issues such as the Mekong River management, South China Sea issue, North Korea’s nuclear program, and explore common positions for the upcoming Asean Summit which will take place on Wednesday in Manila.
Cambodia and Vietnam have been at odds over the differences on how to deal with the South China Sea issue. Vietnam perceives that increasing Chinese influence in Cambodia poses a certain threat to Vietnam.
Another potential source of tension is the management of the Mekong River. Recently, Cambodia has changed its position by supporting Laos in constructing the Don Sahong dam. It may be a signal that Cambodia is interested in building a series of dams along the mainstem river as well.
Although political trust and cooperation is high, economic cooperation has not been strengthened as expected. Both countries failed to achieve the targeted two-way trade turnover of $5 billion. The trade volume only reached $3 billion last year – which actually dropped from 3.37 billion in 2015. It is expected that bilateral trade will increase this year.
In October, Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce and Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade signed an agreement on bilateral trade enhancement arrangement. Cambodia agreed to grant Vietnam zero tariff on 29 tariff-lines, while Vietnam, in return, agreed to grant Cambodia zero tariff on 39 tariff-lines which include 300,000 metric tons of rice exported annually and 3,000 metric tons of dried tobacco leaf export for 2016-17.
Vietnam is one of the top five investors in Cambodia, with an accumulated capital of $1.76 billion from 1994 to 2015. Investment projects concentrate on rubber plantations, telecommunications and the banking sector. However, the investment flow ran dry last year, raising some concern over the future of Vietnam’s investments in the kingdom.
Some of the concerns raised by Vietnamese investors are issues related to tax, work permits and political risks stemming from Cambodia’s domestic politics.
Concerning political and security issues, both countries are expanding areas of cooperation while reducing their differences. Early conclusion of the border demarcation based on mutual interests, equal partnership, and transparency benefits both countries.
The fight against cross-border crimes such as illegal logging, human trafficking and drug trafficking needs stronger political commitment and effective bilateral cooperation.
Maritime security cooperation, especially in capacity building on international maritime laws and rules-based maritime order, is a potential area of cooperation given both countries have not clearly demarcated the overlapping maritime boundary.
Both countries may need to explore cooperation opportunity on food-energy-water-climate change security nexus in the Mekong Basin. Sustainable management of the Mekong River is for the survival of both countries.
Vietnam has urged Cambodia and Laos to join the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses and consider participating in the Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-Boundary Watercourses and International Lakes.
On the socio-cultural cooperation front, Vietnam has offered more than two hundred scholarships a year to Cambodian students. Last year, Vietnam agreed to provide more scholarships to Cambodian students to attend vocational training schools and increase their scholarship allowances.
Science and technology, civil engineering, and medicine are the most popular fields of study among Cambodian students.
At the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle Summit in Siem Reap last year, the three countries agreed to create mechanisms to facilitate the mobility of people in the border areas and simplify customs procedures at border gates.
The three countries will greatly benefit from transforming the development triangle into a sub-regional production network and a single tourism destination with integrated logistics.
Building and maintaining a good relationship with immediate neighbors has been the priority of Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Cambodia has worked relentlessly to nurture stable and good bilateral relations with neighbors. However, the relationship is vulnerable to domestic political dynamics and geostrategic changes.
The coming election cycles in Cambodia will once again put this bilateral relationship at risk. Some political parties will beef up anti-Vietnamese sentiment to garner popularity and votes.
Border issues and illegal Vietnamese migrants in Cambodia have been thorny political issues in Cambodian politics.
To nurture the bilateral relationship, both countries need to work harder based on mutual respect and interests to resolve the remaining issues. Both countries should also advocate for a rules-based international order.
Vietnam may need to explore opportunities to work with other political parties in Cambodia to improve mutual understanding and garner political trust.
In a democratic society, winning the hearts and minds of the people is a prerequisite to a secure long-term bilateral relationship. Both countries need to invest more effort and resources in promoting people-to-people ties.


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