PHNOM PENH -- After years of calm neighborly relations, tensions are again rising on Cambodia's eastern border with Vietnam.
In May, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party launched a campaign to address alleged Vietnamese encroachments along parts of the sensitive frontier. On June 28, more than a dozen people were injured when flag-waving Cambodian activists and monks, led by two CNRP lawmakers, clashed with Vietnamese authorities and villagers along the border in Svay Rieng Province.
Then, on July 19, a 2,500-strong group trooped down to another area of the border, where they engaged in another tense standoff with Vietnamese villagers and Cambodian security forces.
The fear of Vietnamese domination has deep historical roots in Cambodia.
The issue is particularly fraught for Prime Minister Hun Sen and his long-serving Cambodian People's Party, which were installed in power by Vietnam in 1979 and have long been accused of doing Hanoi's bidding. In late 2005, several civil society figures were jailed briefly for criticizing a border treaty with Vietnam. Four years later, opposition leader and current CNRP President Sam Rainsy fled into self-exile after uprooting a temporary demarcation post along the border in Svay Rieng.
But in response to the CNRP's current campaign against alleged border encroachments, the government has broken with tradition. For the first time in years, the Cambodian foreign ministry has dispatched diplomatic notes calling on Vietnam to halt all encroachment and activities in disputed areas.
After the clashes in Svay Rieng, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Khieu Sopheak, described border-trooping opposition activists as "people who love the nation." Hun Sen himself has written to the United Nations requesting access to colonial-era maps in order to "verify" the demarcation process, and on July 16, even admitted the possibility that some border markers have been placed incorrectly. If that were found to be true, he vowed to "demand corrections."
The government's surprising about-face is partly a result of the changing political climate inside Cambodia, where the CPP saw a steep loss of support at the last national elections in mid-2013. The party's share of National Assembly seats fell to just 68 from 90 out of 123 following a surge of support for the CNRP, whose campaign mixed crude anti-Vietnamese appeals with pledges to end corruption and raise wages. Analysts said that with crucial local and national elections looming in 2017 and 2018, Hun Sen was trying to take the initiative away from the opposition.
"He can't allow this issue to be divisive," said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. "For Hun Sen, you have to be posturing against the Vietnamese up to a certain point to deflate the sails of the opposition."
Hun Sen's newfound willingness to address Vietnamese border issues also reflects a subtle shift in Phnom Penh's "special" relationship with Hanoi, which placed the CPP in power in 1979 and stationed a military occupation force in Cambodia throughout the 1980s.
Over the past decade, China has slowly risen to become Cambodia's chief international patron, offering hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and investments and bankrolling the construction of roads, hydropower dams and other infrastructure.
Analysts say strong Chinese support has had two main benefits for Hun Sen: One has been to provide an escape valve from the good governance demands of the country's traditional Western aid donors; the other has been to lessen Cambodia's independence on its old patron, Vietnam. "Hun Sen is moving closer to China, shifting [Cambodia's] traditional alliance from Vietnam to China," said Chheang Vannarith, a lecturer in Asia-Pacific Studies at Leeds University.
The new strategic calculus was on stark display at a Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Phnom Penh in mid-2012, when Cambodia chose to back China's position that the South China Sea dispute should be dealt with bilaterally rather than through a multilateral forum such as ASEAN. Cambodia's stand enraged some fellow ASEAN member-states that dispute China's claims in the region, including Vietnam. It also prevented ASEAN from issuing its customary joint communique for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history.
Closer than they look
While the South China Sea debacle demonstrated China's newfound political clout in Cambodia, it did not lead to a significant rupture in Phnom Penh's relationship with Hanoi. In December 2013, Hun Sen made a visit to Hanoi, where he thanked his hosts for the vital help they provided in overthrowing the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. Significantly, he spoke to his audience in Vietnamese. Given the damage this could do to his standing domestically, it could only be seen as a gesture of conciliation.
At the same time, military relations remain close: During high-level talks in March, the two countries agreed to boost defense ties across the board. The economic relationship is also considerable: In 2014, bilateral trade volume reached $3.2 billion, and is expected to top $5 billion this year. Vietnam is also a key source of foreign direct investment in Cambodia; its total capital investment in Cambodia currently exceeds $3.3 billion.
Just as the Vietnamese government took Cambodia's 2012 South China Sea stance in its stride, Thayer said it was acting in a clear-eyed manner about the current Cambodian politicking over the border. This was partly reflected in the dearth of coverage of the issue in Vietnamese state media, compared with the exhaustive coverage within Cambodia. "It's not led to a sharpened rhetoric in Vietnam, as far as I can see," Thayer said.
The Cambodia-Vietnam Joint Border Committee convened in Phnom Penh on July 6 to 8 to address the current border tensions. During the talks, Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son, co-chair of the meetings with Var Kimhong, chairman of Cambodia's Border Committee, agreed to halt construction of roads, a police station and irrigation ponds in disputed areas. The two sides also pledged to forge ahead with border demarcation and consult closely to "prevent any complications" in the bilateral relationship. After decades of border disputes, Thayer said that Hanoi's main interest was for a "stable border" with Cambodia. So far it seemed to be "playing ball with Hun Sen" in addressing border issues.
Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum, a policy institute based in Phnom Penh, said Hun Sen could be expected to employ nationalist rhetoric without endangering his government's relationship with Vietnam. "Hun Sen definitely is not going to antagonize Vietnam even with China's support," he said.
Despite the nationalist resurgence in its domestic politics, Vannarith Chheang of Leeds University said that "strategic diversification and hedging" would continue to be the cardinal aims of Cambodian foreign policy -- a natural goal for a small country hemmed in by more powerful neighbors. "The main principles are to build good relationships and friendships with everyone," he said.
All of this suggests that that the old "special" -- read: subordinate -- relationship of the 1980s, when Cambodia was a satellite of Hanoi, has evolved into a pairing of relative equals -- just one of many partnerships that are important to Cambodia. Whether this will satisfy Cambodian nationalists, who still see Hun Sen wearing a Vietnamese leash, remains to be seen.
But Ou Virak said that the CNRP's posturing against Vietnam in the runup to the 2017 and 2018 elections runs the risk of playing into Hun Sen's hands, in the sense that it could distract attention from more pressing problems such as land grabs, deforestation and systemic corruption. "If Hun Sen's only required agenda to win [the] 2018 election is to be somewhat a patriot and nationalist against Vietnam. It's the easiest card he can play," Virak said.