Reasserting Cambodia-Vietnam Ties

Chheang Vannarith

03/January/2017, Commentaries

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The traditional friendship between Cambodia and Vietnam was reasserted during the two-day state visit by Prime Minister Hun Sen to Vietnam last December. Mutual respect, mutual interest, equal partnership, peaceful co-existence, and non-interference in domestic affairs are the guiding principles of bilateral relations.

Three agreements were signed to strengthen bilateral cooperation, including the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters between the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Treaty on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons between the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the Agreement on Bilateral Cooperation between the Ministry of Cult and Religion of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Committee for Ethnic Minorities of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Both sides also discussed border demarcation, Vietnamese communities in Cambodia, education and people-to-people exchanges, and economic ties.  It is expected that the approximate 20 percent of border demarcations remaining will be finalized soon. Both countries have requested their former colonial power France to provide border maps to resolve their differences in border demarcation. Cambodia has become more decisive in negotiations with Vietnam over the border issue.

The process of legalization and integration of Vietnamese communities living in Cambodia will be further accelerated. Vietnam has asked Cambodia to continue cooperation on the search and repatriation of Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives in Cambodia. 

Bilateral trade volume is targeted to reach US$ 5 billion. Vietnam is now the fifth largest investor and third largest trading partner of Cambodia. The total investment capital from Vietnam is US$ 2.86 billion. The two-way trade volume topped US$3.37 billion in 2015 and US$2.38 billion by the end of October last year.

As both countries are preparing to celebrate their 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties on June 24, more cooperation projects and activities will take place this year. The most remarkable of these will be the inauguration of the Long Binh-Chrey Thom Bridge and the launch of a model “one door-one stop” at Moc Bai-Bavet border gate.

On regional issues, both sides underlined the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and sustainable use and management of the Mekong River. They are committed to fully implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).

Cambodia-Vietnam relations have been shaken by the rising power and influence of China in the region. Cambodia has pivoted to China for economic and security interests, placing Vietnam in a difficult position to convince Cambodia about the South China Sea issue.

Anti-Vietnam nationalism in Cambodia has also gained steam in recent years. A “Vietnam threat” has been politicized. Border issues and Vietnamese communities in Cambodia continue to be thorny, sensitive issues in Cambodian politics. Additionally, opposition parties continue to accuse the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of being a “puppet” of Hanoi.

Regardless of these accusations, political attacks, and the rising political cost attached to it, the CPP stays committed to maintaining its traditional friendship with Vietnam. It believes that without good and stable relations with all immediate neighbors, Cambodia will be unable to maintain peace and development.

Socio-cultural exchanges between the two countries are the cornerstone of bilateral relations. Both countries agreed to promote mutual understanding between the two peoples to rectify misperception and further develop friendship.

Cambodia and Vietnam are optimistic that their ties will remain strong and firm, and resilient to fast-changing geopolitics and domestic political transformation. Learning from the Cold War, these two countries have adopted a hedging strategy against major powers. Hedging is the strategy adopted by a state, especially a small state, to minimize risks and maximize returns through strategic diversification, economic pragmatism, and multilateralism.

Both countries view regional integration as the core strategy in their foreign policy. They share the view that ASEAN is an important strategic shield to ward off adverse effects caused by major power rivalry. ASEAN and other sub-regional cooperation initiatives such as the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, the Cambodia-Lao PDR-Myanmar-Vietnam Summit, and the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle are the catalysts of national development and security.

The challenges posed by power rivalry between China and the US in Southeast Asia have forced some small countries to stick together and hedge against major powers for their long-term survival. ASEAN is regarded as the core regional institution to protect the interests of its ten Member States, particularly assisting them to navigate through the waves of uncertainty and challenges deriving from China-US rivalry.

Chheang Vannarith is the Co-Founder and Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS).