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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Vietnam-Cambodia Relations
December 30, 2019

We are preparing a whole-year review of Cambodia-Vietnam relations. We seek your


commentary and insight from Vietnam's perspective on the new state of relations.
Q1. How important is Cambodia to Vietnam's foreign policy and national security?
ANSWER: In 1996, the Political Report to the Eighth National Congress of the Vietnam
Communist Party (VCP) gave priority in foreign policy “[t]o strengthen our relations with
neighbouring countries and ASEAN member countries, to constantly consolidate our ties with
traditional friendly states…[emphasis addesd].” This formulation included Cambodia and
priority to “neighbouring countries” has been reiterated at all subsequent national party
congresses since then.
Cambodia has special historical importance to Vietnam because they were included in French
Indochina along with Laos during the colonial era. When the Vietnam Communist Party
applied to join the Communist International it was required to alter its name to Indochinese
Communist Party and assume responsibility for developing communist counterparts in Laos
and Cambodia.
Cambodia remains important in Vietnam’s foreign policy for three main reasons: geography
(they share a 1,158 km border), elite interaction in opposing the Khmer Rouge regime plus a
degree of ideological affinity during the period of Vietnam’s tutelage over the Cambodian
People’s Party or CPP (1979-89), and the presence of an ethnic minority Vietnamese
community (0.1 per cent of the total population).
2) What are Vietnam's approaches and strategies reacting to a rising influence of China
in Cambodia?
ANSWER: Vietnam conducts its relations with Cambodia on a “business as usual” basis
by engaging economically (cross-border trade), politically (as members of ASEAN and
the Greater Mekong Sub-Region), diplomatically (regular high-level dialogues and
exchange of visits) and through close military-to-military and party-to-party relations.
In December 2019, for example, Vietnam and Cambodia renewed their five-year
bilateral military cooperation agreement from 2015-19 to 2020-25. That same month
Cambodia hosted a joint military training exercise with Vietnam to prepare for natural
disaster response. As for party-to-party relations, as early as 1996, CPP delegates
joined delegates from the Chinese and Cuban communist parties to attend the VCP’s
Eighth National Congress.
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While Vietnam has been miffed by Cambodia’s pro-China stance on the South China
Sea and continually casts a wary eye at rising Chinese influence in Cambodia, it is not
surprising that Vietnam conducts “business as usual” relations with Cambodia. After
all, Vietnam and China are comprehensive strategic cooperative partners, the highest
level of Vietnam’s hierarchy of sixteen strategic partners, and they maintain a dense
network of state, party, military and commercial ties despite their maritime dispute in
the South China Sea.
Nonetheless, Vietnam is clear that it is concerned about and will oppose outside
interference in Cambodia aimed at destabilizing its relationship with Vietnam.
Vietnam’s most recent Defence White Book, released in November 2019, states for
example, “Vietnam opposes acts of interference and division of the bilateral
relationship.”
The Thai-Cambodian border conflict in 2008 proved to be an opportunity for Vietnam
when Thailand closed its border trading posts. Vietnam picked up the slack. Also,
Vietnam has moved to step up relations with Cambodia in response to the European
Union’s threat to remove preferential tariffs on Cambodian textiles under Everything
But Arms program.
3) Nguyen Phu Trong's faction in the Communist Party of Vietnam appears to have
more moderate stance toward China than the previous faction of ex-premier Nguyen
Tan Dung. Do you think this is conducive for a better relations with Cambodia (which
is also close to China)?
ANSWER: Vietnam has not let Cambodia’s past pro-China stance on the South China
Seas become a major irritant in bilateral relations. It is clear there were differences in
emphasis on how to conduct Vietnam’s relations with China between former Prime
Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and VCP Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong. But the
central framework for Vietnam’s handing of the South China Sea issue – cooperation
and struggle – remains in place. If anything, the emphasis on struggle has sharpened
and intensified over the last year. It is the EU factor and threat to remove preferential
tariffs on Cambodian textiles that has created an opportunity for Cambodia and
Vietnam to step up their bilateral relations.
It should be pointed out, that when Cambodia had a multiparty system, the
opposition’s (FUNCINPEC, Sam Rainsy Party and the Cambodian National Rescue
Party) stance on border issues with Vietnam was by far the major irritant in bilateral
relations.
4) What is Vietnam's expectation of Cambodia amid an increasingly tense strategic
environment in the region?
ANSWER: Vietnam places priority on maintaining a secure and trouble-free border
with Cambodia, preventing Cambodia from becoming a haven for anti-VCP activists,
and implementation of a past agreement that both Cambodia and Vietnam would not
permit the establishment of any foreign military bases directed at the other country.
Vietnam also seeks Cambodia’s cooperation in advancing the Greater Mekong Sub-
Region project of promoting the development of cross-border infrastructure and
people-to-people ties. Vietnam and Cambodia have a common interest in protecting
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the sustainability of the Lower Mekong from Chinese damming activities in the Upper
Mekong.

Media Identification: Carl Thayer is emeritus professor at The University of


New South Wales, Canberra or Carl Thayer is emeritus professor at The University of
New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam-Cambodia Relations,” Thayer
Consultancy Background Brief, December 30, 2019. All background briefs are posted
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.