Cambodia currently faces significant challenges amidst great power strategic competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific. The ongoing dispute in the South China Sea and US President Donald Trump’s uncertain and unpredictable foreign policy in the region have presented enormous uncertainties for Cambodia, pushing Phnom Penh close to the Chinese sphere of influence. China’s economic, military, and strategic influence over Cambodia continues to grow. China is now Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and its most generous economic and military benefactor. Chinese growing influence in Cambodia is alarming to Vietnam’s strategic interest in Cambodia. Both China and Vietnam are crucial developmental partners for Cambodia. China needs Cambodian support over several key strategic areas like the issue of the South China Sea, while Vietnam also seeks Cambodian cooperation on the overlapping issue of the South China Sea with China.
Challenges to the Trilateral Relationship
This trilateral relationship in retrospect has been worse. Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79 with generous support from China. Vietnam with Russian support invaded Cambodia in late 1978 and early 1979 with the excuse of liberating Cambodia from its brutal leader Pol Pot. China under Deng Xiaoping as Cambodia’s patron taught Vietnam a harsh lesson by attacking Vietnam from the north. However, the Vietnamese troops stayed in Cambodia until 1989.
The Hague ruling in July 2016 further complicated issues for the Southeast Asian states and Cambodia in particular. Oftentimes, Cambodia has been accused of being biased to the Chinese side because of the charming influence of China’s unconditional aid and investment. Such accusations usually refer to the Phnom Penh fiasco, once in 2012 when Cambodia was chairman of ASEAN Summit, and then again in 2016 when Cambodia was believed to have blocked ASEAN efforts to issue a joint communiqué with strong words assailing the Chinese rejection of The Hague ruling and its growing assertive behavior in the South China Sea dispute.
As noted by some scholars, since the 2012 ASEAN Summit, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam appeared to have deteriorated. Cambodia opted to support China’s “core interests” on the South China Sea dispute which resulted in ASEAN’s failure to produce a Joint Communiqué following its 45th Annual Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012. It was the first time in the history of ASEAN when there was no communiqué as Cambodia refused to play the customary role of seeking agreement among the ten ASEAN members. As a result, Cambodia was criticized by its closest ally — Vietnam, and other ASEAN members and the international community for lacking an independent foreign policy. Although Vietnam expected Cambodia to sympathize with its position, it turned out that Cambodia had instead moved closer to China.
Another issue with Vietnam is the chronic “Vietnam Syndrome” and Cambodian nationalism over their border dispute. The ongoing rhetoric from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) towards Vietnamese encroachment into Cambodian territory further contributes to the deteriorating relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. According to Chheang Vannarith, the border-related tensions are likely to stay still as long as domestic political dynamics in Cambodia continue to evolve around assertive nationalism. However, from the Vietnamese point of view, even with these issues, Cambodia remains indispensable for Vietnam because of their shared traditions and national interests. Hanoi still grapples with how special Cambodia is to Vietnam and how this special factor influences their bilateral relationship in the current regional context.
Win-Win Outlook for the Trilateral Relationship
Looking at the trade and investment dimension, bilateral trade between Cambodia and Vietnam has been fluctuating in recent years. According to the Khmer Times, total investment capital from Vietnam is USD 2.86 billion while the two-way trade volume between Cambodia and Vietnam topped USD 3.37 billion in 2015 and USD 2.38 billion at the end of 2016. Both sides had pledged to reach USD 5 billion in 2015 but failed to do so. In contrast, bilateral trade between Cambodia and China is on the rise. The bilateral trade volume between Cambodia and China stood at USD 4.4 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach USD 5 billion in 2017.
The optimism in the trilateral relationship is that the three countries, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam share a common development perception — the “Good Neighbor Policy.” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen frequently reiterates that Cambodia can only develop as long as it has good relations with its neighbors, and the same principle is shared by the Vietnamese top leaders. China has also demonstrated its good neighbor policy and promotes the concept of the peaceful rise, regardless of what China has been doing in the South China Sea.
With this shared perception, China is striving to initiate and boost several development projects with the countries in the Southeast Asian region. The Mekong-Lancang Cooperation, for example, serves as a platform for the top leaders from Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The aims of this initiative are to bolster industrialization, to build more infrastructure, to upgrade industrial structure, to accelerate agriculture modernization, and to encourage tourism. Both Vietnam and Cambodia can gain more advantages and so far the two countries have actively engaged in this initiative. Cambodia has played a leading role in this project by hosting the 2nd Mekong-Lancang Cooperation Foreign Ministers Meeting in 2016 in Siem Reap, a historical site in Cambodia. Cambodia can use this platform to push its development agenda, which is aimed at bringing out the common benefits for all involved.
Even with ongoing cleavages over legitimate claims to the South China Sea, Vietnam and China can manage to find a way out, which can be seen as lowering the burden on Cambodia. The recent state visits of the top Vietnamese leaders in 2016 and early 2017 and the warm welcome by their Chinese counterparts have really paved the way forward. Along with the developmental cooperation agenda, the heated issues of the South China Sea were also discussed in both state visits. If the two countries can find a common ground of understanding regarding their differences, Cambodia in this regard will be likely to feel less externally pressured.
Cambodia’s Strategic Choice
At the macro level, Cambodia and Vietnam seem to enjoy a fruitful relationship through political, security, and trade cooperation. However, at the micro level, Cambodian public sentiment towards Vietnam is not likely to improve. This issue needs to be addressed with effective measures. Exchange programs like the Sarus Exchange Program, which allows Cambodian and Vietnamese youth to get together and to share their culture and experiences, should be expanded. This type of joint cooperation should be increased because the future of both countries will depend on their young generations. Through the youth exchange program, the strategic mistrust arising from history can be ameliorated. If they can reach a common understanding among themselves, peace, prosperity, and stability are likely to be sustained. Chheang Vannarith has noted that understanding history through youth in this regard could help both countries to move towards reconciliation. He added, “History gives light to the future but don’t let history dictate the future.”
When it comes to the issue of the South China Sea, moving closer to China at the expense of Vietnam is not a viable option for Cambodia. Siding with Vietnam to balance Chinese power is not a practical option either. To avoid becoming a scapegoat and to ensure friendly relations with both countries, it has been suggested that promoting a rule-based regional order is imperative, so that all states regardless of their size may approach international affairs with similar assumptions. A strong and cohesive ASEAN is vital for a rule-based regional order and for Cambodia’s future autonomy and prosperity, even though this regional arrangement has not proven to be effective at ensuring the security of its members, especially smaller ones like Cambodia.
Finally, Cambodia’s foreign policy towards China in this context is described by some Cambodian scholars as “soft alignment,” “soft bandwagoning” or “bandwagoning for benefits.” However, the problem for foreign policy is that Cambodia may fall in the sphere of Chinese influence with less room for maneuver, and its foreign policy may not be seen as neutral and independent as written in its constitution. In the short run, Cambodia can gain more benefits, but in the long run Cambodia may become too dependent on China. If that is the case, the narrative of Cambodia as ASEAN spoiler will turn out to be true.
Cambodia seems to be the biggest winner if the country can walk the fine line between China and Vietnam. Both countries have significantly contributed to Cambodia’s economic and security development. Cambodia needs both China and Vietnam for achieving its security and economic interests. Clearly, China is the most important partner for Cambodia’s badly-needed economic development. However, given their geographical proximity, Cambodia cannot afford to lose Vietnam either. Good neighbor cooperation brings peace and stability for both countries and the region. Cambodia should build an independent foreign diplomacy and seek to diversify its foreign policy, working to harmonize as far as possible with countries in the region and the world. Likewise, as a small state, Cambodia must continue to see the value in engaging regional entities. Cambodia’s long-term interests lie in engaging with regional initiatives like ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and other important international forums.
As rightly pointed out by Bernd Schaefer, a senior scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center and professor at George Washington University, “If Cambodia places all its eggs in one basket, they will ultimately break. Cambodia needs as many baskets as possible-large, medium, and small.” Thus, picking China or Vietnam to the exclusion of the other is not the best option for Cambodia. Cambodia’s history has shown that Cambodia had chosen sides once before and that had led to disaster.