Geographic contiguity built around the Mekong River plains, ancient socio-cultural connections, and collective modern history of colonial occupation by the French are significant triggers for Vietnam, Cambodia and Lao to converse beyond the ASEAN framework. In this context, it was indeed a unique opportunity for Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen PhuTrong to host General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, Thongloun Sisoulith and Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, for the first ever tripartite talks on 26 September.
The meeting signified the importance of the traditional relations, solidarity and friendship among the “three parties and countries”. Among the many issues that were highlighted by the respective leaders, the fight against the Covid-19 was uppermost in their minds.They also exchanged ideas that would prove beneficial for the peoples of the three countries as also for the “sake of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world over.” From the Vietnamese perspective, the event was significant to showcase Hanoi’s commitment to focus on the importance and the “development of traditional, friendly and cooperative relations with neighboring countries” and promoting solidarity among the three countries.
The bonhomie exhibited by the three leaders clearly shows that these countries are willing to manage their boundary disputes through diplomacy. Vietnam and Cambodia have unresolved border issues and have witnessed strong nationalist sentiment; yet have managed their differences. Likewise, escalations along the 540 kilometer Laos and Cambodia partly un-demarcated border have threatened to upset ties, but concerns have been addressed through early intervention by high-level officials.
Being neighbours, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have enormous opportunities for investments in each other’s economies. In 2018, it was reported that Vietnam had invested in 113 projects worth about US$3.6 billion in the border provinces of Cambodia and Lao PDR (65 projects in Lao PDR and 48 in Cambodia) including infrastructure funding. At the CLV summit, Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen XuanPhuc highlighted that five Vietnamese provinces in the CLV-DTA had attracted 233 projects from 20 countries and territories with a total registered capital of US$2.3 billion.
In the above context it is important to highlight that the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle Area (CLV-DTA) has been the singular opening to boost cross border trade activities with direct benefits for the livelihoods of people in the region. In September 2021, the CLV-DTA hosted the eighth conference of the Committees for External Relations of the National Assemblies titled “Strengthening parliamentary partnership for sustainable development and response to Covid in the CLV Development Triangle Area”. It was aimed at reinforcing their “shared interests and cope with the pandemic for the common prosperity and solidarity of people in the area as well as the promotion of traditional friendship and long-term solidarity among the three countries”.
It is useful to mention that the CLV grouping is not free of great power interest. There is a general belief that China looms large in the CLV construct and Beijing can dwarf any external influence. This is particularly true in the case of Cambodia and Laos who have been receiving Chinese largesse through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which in recent times has come under intense scrutiny due to fears of debts that have impacted the national economy. For instance, Cambodia’s Finance Ministry has noted that “Cambodia’s foreign debt stood at $8.8 billion by the end of 2020 with China accounting for $3.9 billion, or 44 percent, of that debt”.
The US too has wooed the CLV to counter Chinese strategic influence in the Mekong region and has promoted 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”.
Among the CLV grouping, Vietnamese companies have established themselves in southern provinces of Savannakhet and Attapeu and the “daily economic activities between the two countries have almost no barriers and many Vietnamese have taken this opportunity to immigrate to Laos, working in a variety of jobs from small shop owners to construction workers. These people-to-people interactions have deepened Vietnam–Laos relations and it will be some time before China has similar ties”. This Laotian comfort with Vietnam is a useful “counterweight” to China and allows it to “walk the line between its two bigger neighbours and benefit from both”. It is worth mentioning that Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) calls its Laotian counterpart as “anhem (brothers)” and the Vietnamese ambassador to Laos holds the rank of vice minister of foreign affairs.
As far as South China Sea is concerned, Vietnam is worried about which way Phnom Penh would go; similarly, Laos has no stakes in the South China Sea and would not like to displease China. Notwithstanding these concerns, Vietnam has taken this tripartite initiative which should trigger more cooperation among the CLV and should be able to ward off pressures from both China and the US.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.