President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his entourage of high level ministers and officials are in Cambodia on a two-day State visit at the invitation of King Norodom Sihamoni. The visit also marks 55th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic relations (1967-2022).
President Phuc can be expected to offer his country’s full support to his host given that Cambodia will be holding the rotational Chair of the ASEAN during 2022. In this context, Cambodia is inheriting from Brunei, the current Chair of ASEAN, the enormous challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic for which Vietnam had very generously provided Cambodia with a variety of medical supplies and equipment. As part of their “good neighborly relations”, Cambodia too reciprocated and donated 200,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine to Vietnam. Interestingly both sides also gifted cash to each other to tide over financial difficulties.
South China Sea will surely be on the agenda, and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc would be hoping that Cambodia accords high priority to the issue that it deserves. In this context, Prime Minister Hun Sen has publicly revealed two of his ambitious goals that he wishes to accomplish in 2022 as chair of the ASEAN. He wants to “have the COC adopted in Cambodia at the summit next year ; but if an acceptable draft of the COC cannot be issued by then, people should not place the blame on Cambodia as they did in 2012 when the country last chaired ASEAN”. In fact he also clarified that at that time  Cambodia was not defending China, but the “claimant countries on the South China Sea demanded that the ASEAN chair issue a declaration acknowledging specific islands and maritime locations as belonging to certain countries,” Furthermore “Cambodia as the ASEAN chair will try its best, along with the other ASEAN members and China, to negotiate a COC that is effective and acceptable to all parties”. This should be very comforting for President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his country.
Similarly, the ongoing tensions between US and China, and the more recent Cambodia-US imbroglio are significant issues that could feature in President Phuc’s official talks with Cambodian leaders. The US announced sanctions against Cambodia and imposed an arms embargo on the country due to “deepening Chinese military influence in Cambodia,” which “undermines and threatens regional security.” Prime Minister Hun Sen, in response, called on the “next generation of Cambodians who lead the government” to focus on an “independent defence sector” and not use US weapons.
The US-China tensions is an issue of common concern for Vietnam and Cambodia due to Washington’s overt pressures on building a wider consensus among ASEAN Member States for its Indo-Pacific strategy which clearly targets China. Although the Biden Administration has underscored ‘ASEAN centrality’ in its Indo-Pacific policy, assured South China Sea claimant its support, and has more recently announced plans to host an in-person summit between US President Joe Biden and leaders of the ASEAN Member States in Washington in January 2022, there is discomfort among many ASEAN countries who do not wish to be pushed into choosing between China and the US.
President Nguyen Xuan Phuc may also discuss issues concerning the Mekong River wherein China has been overly aggressive over the management of the river water by building dams. This has adversely affected the lower riparian states particularly Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (CLV). In this case, the US has provided support to CLV through the Mekong US Partnership (MUSP) which also includes Myanmar and Thailand. The MUSP aims to enhance “economic connectivity, human capital development, trans-boundary water and natural resources management, and non-traditional security”. This is a potential counter to any Chinese strategic influence in the Mekong region.
Notwithstanding the ongoing attempts by the US and China, Vietnam and Cambodia would continue to build robust political trust marked by constructive political-party engagements, diplomatic exchanges, convergences on many of the sensitive strategic issues, and economic relations.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Featured Image Source: VietNam Breaking News