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
By David Hutt, @davidhuttjourno
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
For decades, Sam Rainsy and senior CNRP officials have claimed Hun
Sen is merely a “puppet” of Vietnam and is content to cede sovereignty
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.