Hedging without coordination? The Cambodian Government’s Policies Toward Vietnam

 Memo #369

By: Thearith Leng – thearithleng2011 [at] gmail.com

Hedging, a mix of bandwagoning (political deference) and balancing (varying forms of defiance), has become a popular concept to explain how small Southeast Asian states manage their relations with larger countries. Cambodia’s policies toward its more powerful neighbor, Vietnam, display such a mixed approach. But in looking for causes of hedging, rather than a coordinated plan to strengthen domestic legitimacy, in Cambodia’s case at least, the sources can be traced to a relative lack of coordination.

For example, while Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was thanking Vietnam for “rescuing” the country from the Khmer Rouge in fluent Vietnamese during an official visit in 2013, opposition parties stoked domestic anti-Vietnamese views over the treatment of the Khmer Krom (a Khmer speaking indigenous group in southern Vietnam). This culminated in a series of anti-Vietnamese demonstrations in front of the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh during the summer of 2014. Chairman of the Vietnamese National Assembly, Nguyen Sinh Hung, invited Heng Samrin, the president of Cambodia’s National Assembly, to pay an official visit. The Vietnamese media reported Heng Samrin’s pledge to crack down on the anti-Vietnamese demonstrations. However, after Heng Samrin’s return to Cambodia, Chheang Vun, his subordinate and the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Cambodian National Assembly, contradicted the media reports, stating that Heng Samrin had in fact said, “Cambodia cannot ban people from launching protests given the country’s adherence to the principle of democracy, pluralism, and the rule of law.”

Responses to encroachments by illegal Vietnamese settlers and the Vietnamese Army into the border provinces have also displayed indications of hedging without coordination. The Cambodian Ministry of Interior deported 960 illegal immigrants from July to November 2014, the toughest action the government had ever taken on the matter. This prompted a visit by Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to Phnom Penh in December 2014, but the Cambodian government continued its deportation of Vietnamese settlers. At the same time, Phnom Penh declined to publicize official protests to Vietnam regarding border encroachments, despite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs having sent thirteen diplomatic notes from 2013 to 2015 to Hanoi regarding the unilateral construction projects in Kandal and Svay Rieng provinces, fearing irreparable damage to bilateral relations.

As the Cambodia’s policies toward Vietnam indicate, the causes of hedging may not always stem from personalized decision-making or a coordinated strategy to strengthen domestic power, but from the presence of multiple voices and actors affecting foreign policy. 

About the Author:

Thearith Leng is writing his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy (UNSW at ADFA). He has an MA in International Peace Studies, from the Graduate School of International Relations, International University of Japan, and has been the recipient of both the Gold and Silver Working Medals from Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen.

CNRP lawmakers Um Sam An (right) and Real Camerin (left) stand on Border Post 203 yesterday in Svay Rieng’s Kampong Ro district during a visit to the Cambodia-Vietnam border (Credit: Vireak Mai, The Phnom Penh Post)

 

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