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Vietnam congress ‘not likely to affect Cambodia ties’

Delegates listen to speeches during the official opening ceremony of the VCP’s 12th National Congress in Hanoi late last week where the Communist Party will pick new leaders. AFP
Delegates listen to speeches during the official opening ceremony of the VCP’s 12th National Congress in Hanoi late last week where the Communist Party will pick new leaders. AFP

Vietnam congress ‘not likely to affect Cambodia ties’

As Vietnam’s Communist Party continues its weeklong congress to choose its general secretary, experts and analysts said the outcome would likely do little to change the historically close relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam’s ruling parties.

Early media reports indicate that Nguyen Phu Trong will run for the post unopposed, though time still remains for another candidate to be named before the congress ends on Wednesday. However, the experts said, even if Hanoi’s most powerful position went to his top challenger, the current reform-minded Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, relations with Phnom Penh would be little affected.

“I don’t see any radical shifts in Vietnamese foreign policy toward the region or Cambodia as a result of the 12th National Congress,” said Paul Chambers, a professor of international relations at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University.

Chambers said that whatever the outcome of the party congress, Vietnam would continue to follow “a policy of balanced proximity” towards regional powers. Specifically, he said, Hanoi would continue “seeking to ensure that Cambodia’s government does not become overly chummy with Beijing”.

China has in recent years become Cambodia’s largest donor of foreign aid as well as its largest foreign investor and provider of military assistance. Meanwhile, Beijing and Hanoi are embroiled in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

“Vietnam will continue to use gentle diplomatic pressure to ensure that Hun Sen maintains a policy of general balance between Hanoi and Beijing,” he said, while adding that “the Cambodian military has such close linkages with the Vietnamese military that Hanoi need not worry so much anyway”.

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, agreed with Chambers that balancing China’s influence vis a vis Cambodia would remain a major crux of Vietnamese regional policy, but added that Cambodia would also continue to follow a similar policy of balancing “more powerful countries off each other”.

“The advantage of Chinese support for Hun Sen is that it’s given him a counterbalance against what used to be a smothering Vietnamese relationship,” he said.

Vannarith Chheang, a professor of comparative politics in Southeast Asia at the University of Leeds, said that border disputes would remain a major thorn in the Vietnam-Cambodia relationship, and would likely intensify in the run-up to 2018 Cambodian elections.

“Vietnam will seek to complete the border demarcation as soon as possible,” he said.

Even so, Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the University of New South Wales, said that Vietnam “puts a premium on maintaining good relations” with Cambodia. “Generally, as far as Vietnam’s policy towards Cambodia, it will be steady as she goes.”

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