Forty years after the fall of the China-supported Khmer Rouge regime to Vietnam’s invading forces, Cambodia is now more clearly in Beijing’s than Hanoi’s orbit
Forty years ago today, some 100,000 Vietnamese soldiers accompanied by almost 20,000 Cambodian defectors marched into Phnom Penh to overthrow the radical Maoist Khmer Rouge regime.
The invading forces found less than 100 survivors in the capital city. The Khmer Rouge, which came to power in 1975, had evacuated Phnom Penh, leaving buildings to decay and collapse.
In the countryside, where almost all Cambodians were sent as part of the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” revolution, it was a Hobbesian nightmare. After less than four years in power, an estimated quarter of all Cambodians perished under the genocidal regime.
Only in November 2018 were two of the regime’s senior officials finally convicted of genocide, against the Cham and Vietnamese minorities.
January 7 is marked in Cambodia as either “Liberation Day” or “Victory Day”, and was once described by a former leader as the country’s “second birthday,” the first being its independence from French colonial rule in 1953.
It is also a date when Cambodia and Vietnam celebrate their seemingly intractable relationship. A new Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument was inaugurated earlier this month in Cambodia’s northeastern Mondulkiri province, adding to the one that has stood tall in Phnom Penh since the 1980s.
On Saturday, senior-most officials of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) marked their victory – the “Counter-offensive on the Southwestern border,” as it was called at the time in Hanoi – with a somber ceremony and a slew of new monuments to mark the anniversary.
Roughly 25,000 Vietnamese soldiers lost their lives in Cambodia between December 1978 and September 1989, when its military withdrew from the country under a UN-brokered peace accord. Up until the turn of the century, it was almost a cliché to talk about Cambodia’s “special relationship” with Vietnam, which had propped up the post-Khmer Rouge government throughout the 1980s.
Today, however, there are questions about the closeness of their special relations since China has more recently become Cambodia’s main provider of aid and investment, one of its largest trading partners and its closest ally.
Equally important, China provides protection to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), installed to power by the Vietnamese in 1979, as Western criticism mounts and possible sanctions loom due to its recent lurch away from multi-party democracy.
“It’s clear that while Vietnam invaded Cambodia, it’s China that won Cambodia and now calls the shots,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles. “Hanoi looks at Phnom Penh wistfully, sometimes even with quite a bit of resentment; the client they created has broken away and married China.”
While Vietnam liberated Cambodia from its genocidal regime, it was self-defense, not altruism, that drove Vietnam’s intervention. Vietnam launched its full-scale invasion of Cambodia just 13 days before it entered Phnom Penh, a move motivated by years of small border incursions by Khmer Rouge forces.
Nonetheless, Vietnam paid a heavy price during the 1980s, as much of the international community opposed the new government it installed. The precursor to the CPP, which changed its name in 1991, was put in power by Vietnamese forces as the post-Khmer Rouge government on January 8, 1979.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, was made prime minister in 1985, a position he has held since.
China, however, had backed the Khmer Rouge throughout its four-year rule and after, as it was reduced to launching minor incursions from its bases near the Thai border until the mid-1990s. So, too, did the US and some European nations consider the Khmer Rouge to be Cambodia’s legitimate government throughout most of the 1980s, motivated by Cold War politicking.
Today, Phnom Penh isn’t as keen to present this history in the moralistic, black-and-white terms as it did in the past.
A slick propaganda film about Hun Sen’s defection from the Khmer Rouge and his fight against the Khmer Rouge was broadcast on national television in January of last year. It didn’t once mention that China was the genocidal regime’s main backer.
Such historical contortion comes easy. China was “the root of everything that is evil” in Cambodia, Hun Sen famously said in the late 1980s. A decade later, however, he came to see China as Cambodia’s “most trustworthy friend”. Today, the mot juste for government officials is “ironclad friend.”
But where does all of this leave Vietnam? There are certain indications that relations between Cambodia and Vietnam are souring, chiefly because Beijing is now usurping the roles Hanoi once played in Cambodia. Fragments of this official discontent occasionally seep through closed door diplomatic meetings.
Soy Sopheap is a long-time political mediator for Hun Sen and a founder of the government’s most vocal mouthpiece, Fresh News. In June, he dedicated a segment of his chat show on BTV News, a news station owned by Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana, to railing angrily at Vietnamese businesses for holding lengthy land concessions in Cambodia. Significantly, complaints of China doing the same in Vietnam precipitated major protests across Vietnam that same month.
“We are never brave enough to speak out as we’re forever scared of Vietnam,” Sopheap stated on air, before lambasting the Vietnamese foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, for “looking down” on Cambodia.
It is unlikely that someone of his stature would have been allowed to make such incendiary comments in Cambodia’s repressed media environment without the blessing of senior government officials.
A few months earlier, in March, Hun Sen was even more unequivocal. “I will question our friend Vietnam, whether they are actually loyal to me and Cambodia,” he said in a speech. It isn’t the first time that relations between the two nations have been called into question.
The Cambodia government has twice in recent years prevented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a regional bloc, from making strongly worded statements against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, features of which are strongly contested by Vietnam.
Whereas Malaysia and the Philippines have largely dropped their criticism of China’s action in the maritime area, Vietnam remains a constant and vocal critic. Its improving ties with the US, keen to limit China’s geopolitical power, have arguably emboldened Vietnam in its opposition.
It is possible, however, that Hun Sen’s comments were simply for his domestic audience, rather than revealing bilateral tiffs with Vietnam. They came amid a verbal attack on his veteran political opponent Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled leader of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
For decades, Sam Rainsy and senior CNRP officials have claimed Hun Sen is merely a “puppet” of Vietnam and is content to cede sovereignty to Hanoi.
They have also engaged in anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, inflaming such chauvinism that dates back to the 19th century. “Send the yuon immigrants back” was one of Sam Rainsy’s proposals before the 1998 general election, using a supposed racist slur against the Vietnamese.
But in his bid to paint Sam Rainsy as treasonous, part of the CPP’s narrative in justifying the CNRP’s court-ordered ban, Hun Sen made a volte-face by suggesting his opponent had secret meetings with Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2003, with the implication that Sam Rainsy is a Vietnamese sympathizer.
There were also reports last year of diplomatic displeasure in Hanoi with Cambodia’s political direction.
Alan Parkhouse, a veteran journalist and editor in Cambodia, wrote early last year in Asia Times that Politburo officials in Hanoi “expressed their displeasure behind closed doors during a November  meeting in Vietnam, even going as far as telling Hun Sen to step down after July’s elections,” according to a Cambodian government insider.
The most obvious explanation for fraying relations is China. “After 1997, Hun Sen incrementally brought Cambodia from a balancing of Vietnam, China and the West to what Cambodia is today- an economic dependency of China,” says Paul Chambers, lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University, Thailand.
In this reading of events, it is only natural for Cambodia to somewhat lose interest in Vietnam since it has more to gain from China.
In an essay for the Southeast Asian Affairs journal published last year, Steven Heder, a research associate at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote that Vietnam-Cambodia relations are best understood through a party-to-party prism, rather than the traditional nation-to-nation viewpoint.
Both parties have enjoyed close relations for four decades. Many CPP officials studied in Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s, and many still look to Hanoi for guidance in policy and governance.
On an important level, healthy relations between the two nations are maintained by close dealings between the Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA) and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), effectively the CPP’s armed wing.
Almost all of the RCAF’s most senior staff are CPP officials, including the Prime Minister’s son Hun Manet, now one of the military’s most senior officials.
Vietnam’s military still also holds significant investments in the Cambodian economy. Metfone, Cambodia’s largest telecoms network operator, is owned by the Vietnamese military-owned Viettel Military Industry and Telecoms Group.
From a party-to-party viewpoint, Cambodia-Vietnam relations are not only maintained at the higher levels of governance, through the two ruling parties agreeing on many of the same things, but also through lower-level dealings, such as between military officials.
When Vietnamese Minister of Defense Ngo Xuan Lich visited Phnom Penh in late December, Hun Sen made a point to stress that dealings between the two militaries remain tight.
But party-to-party relations are also diverging. On the one hand, Vietnam’s repressive Communist Party would be alarmed if a democratic election in its neighbor saw a handover of power to an untrusted party – especially if that victor was the CNRP, given its historic anti-Vietnam stance.
It would make little diplomatic sense, then, for Vietnam’s Communist Party to oppose Hun Sen’s rule considering none of Vietnam’s neighbors – Cambodia, Laos and China – have ever had functioning democracies for at least the last half century.
On the other hand, however, the Vietnam is today keen to promote free-trade and mollify Western concerns about human rights and democracy in the region.
As such, it doesn’t want foreign governments poking their interventionist noses in regional affairs, certainly not lest they also begin to question what’s happening in Vietnam, too.
Its free trade agreement with the European Union, which could prove wonders for the Vietnamese economy, hangs in the balance because of human rights concerns.
But this was the exact result of CPP’s political crackdown and dissolution of the CNRP. The US has already imposed sanctions on some Cambodian officials, and promises more, while the European Union has taken steps to punitively withdraw Cambodia from a preferential trade deal.
Independent observers have not missed the diplomatic hypocrisy of punishing Cambodia but not Vietnam for its abysmal rights record.
But the question remains whether Cambodia is moving closer to China at the expense of Vietnam, or is the CPP moving closer to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the expense of the Vietnam’s Communist Party? Beijing is now offering the same party-to-party exchanges and “soft power” roles that used to be exclusive to Hanoi.
More civil servants and ministry officials are traveling to China on visits to observe how politics operates there. Most ministries have signed bilateral agreements to boost joint cooperation. Beijing has also funded new think tanks in Cambodia, and is even paying for Cambodian journalists to visit China to study alongside their Chinese counterparts.
Thanks to scholarship programs, more than 1,000 Cambodians have now studied at Chinese universities, many of whom will go onto hold positions of influence. Most are likely to return imbued with China’s outlook on world affairs, in which Vietnam often plays the role of adversary, especially in regards to the South China Sea.
In December, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged more support for youth exchanges programs when he met Hun Many, one of Hun Sen’s sons who serves as president of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, a CPP-aligned organization.
Another explanation of shifts in party-to-party relations between Cambodia and Vietnam is the supremacy of Hun Sen over the CPP. Analysts say that CPP grandees, like the late Chea Sim, the party’s president between 1991 to 2015, were avowedly pro-Vietnam.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng is another senior CPP official who is said to still have very close ties to Hanoi, though his control over the party is certainly not as significant as Hun Sen’s. The death or fading influence of such pro-Vietnam officials has allowed the CPP to rethink its foreign relations, analysts say.
“At least since 2008, Hun Sen has held almost all the cards in the CPP. Hun Sen was initially balancing between Vietnam and China. His decision to move closer to China was backed by the CPP because Hun Sen effectively is the CPP,” says Chambers.
There are also clear changes in military-to-military relations as China’s armed forces form even closer relations with Cambodia’s – possibly making Vietnam’s military ties less important in the process.
The two sides now hold regular joint training exercises, dubbed “Golden Dragon”, and Beijing invites senior Cambodian defense officials on state visits. This has become even more important after Phnom Penh postponed, for an undisclosed time, joint training operations with the US military, which is forming increasingly closer ties to Vietnam’s armed forces.
In recent years, China has also pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to support Cambodia’s military, including an additional US$130 million it provided last year to the defense sector. China also pledged US$2.5 million last year to help clear unexploded ordnance left behind by the Khmer Rouge, a donor area that used to be provided mainly by the US and Japan.
In November, this journalist co-authored a report for Asia Times on rumors that China was lobbying to build a naval base in southwest Cambodia, and correctly predicted the issue would be raised by senior US officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, when they attended Asian conferences at the time.
Hun Sen and other senior Cambodian politicians have spent the last two months denying the allegation.
When he visited Vietnam in December, Hun Sen told his counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc that the report was “fake news, lying news and destructive news,” while repeating his oft-stated rebuttal that “the constitution of Cambodia does not allow any foreign military bases in the Kingdom.”
In the past two years alone, however, the CPP has shown its constitution to be easily malleable for its political and other purposes. As for the future of trilateral relations between Cambodia, Vietnam and China, it is likely to continue down the same path it has been moving in recent years.
Rhetorically, Cambodia will remain equidistant between its two allies. Vietnam will be heralded as Cambodia’s liberator and historic ally. China’s role in funding the Khmer Rouge will be torn from the CPP’s history book, as will almost all occasions when Hun Sen didn’t see Beijing as Cambodia’s “ironclad friend.”
But, in diplomatic reality, Vietnam will play second fiddle as China has much more to offer Cambodia 40 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime Beijing once supported and Hanoi overthrew.