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  • Cambodia–Vietnam:Special Relationship against Hostile and Unfriendly Forces
  • Steve Heder (bio)

Comprehensive Relations with a Military Pillar

Vietnam–Cambodia relations are described officially as "comprehensive"1 and indeed have political, economic, security (military and police), cultural and other facets. Politically, there are close and tightening links between the two countries' ruling parties, symbolized by the fact that in a speech to the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Congress in January 2016, General Ngo Xuan Lich, about to be promoted to Minister of Defence, placed the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) as second among the foreign political organizations with which the CPV was strengthening bilateral cooperation, behind only that of Laos.2 The comradeship entails general efforts "to closely coordinate and to strengthen the exchange of information and experiences in party-building work"3 and the two sides speak of it as a "special relationship",4 the formulation used to describe the relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam (and Laos and Vietnam) from 1979 to 1990.5 During an April 2017 visit to Phnom Penh to meet with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc described links as flourishing, declaring that "especially in the recent years and months, Vietnam–Cambodia relations have been very much more familial, affectionate, trusting and intimate".6

Within this framework, the Vietnam–Cambodia military ties embodied in the links between the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) are characterized as a "main pillar".7 This is a realm in which the Vietnamese believe they can and should continue to have a very special place, rooted in their unique role in militarily toppling Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea [End Page 113] in January 1979 and directly building Cambodia's security forces for a decade thereafter.8 In bilateral contexts with a military flavour, Hun Sen has been prone to affirm that "without the help of Vietnam, Cambodia would absolutely not be where it is today".9

Two overarching themes of VPA–RCAF cooperation are that, historically, "always at the most difficult times, there has been only Vietnam helping Cambodia",10 and that, currently, the VPA is ready to assist the RCAF "in all circumstances",11 including at any time "when the CPP is encountering difficulties".12 Hun Sen has described bilateral relations like one of "lips and teeth", with a basis in a "political relationship" between the two countries' armed forces.13 In historical Asian Communist parlance, the notion of a lips and teeth relationship has referred to one of militant solidarity in wartime against a common enemy.14

Combating "Hostile" and "Unfriendly" Forces

In policy terms, current VPA–RCAF relations are pursuant to a 2014 CPV Central Military Commission policy resolution,15 according to which VPA forces combine preventing political change away from CPV rule in Vietnam itself with cooperating closely with the RCAF.16 In January 2016, the Director of Vietnam's National Defence Academy explained that helping make Cambodia strong with regard to its domestic "political security" helps "protect the security of Vietnam."17

This puts security force relationships at the core of Cambodia–Vietnam mutual assistance to realize the CPP–CPV objective of ensuring that what in Khmer are labelled "unfriendly forces" (កម្លាំង អមិត្រ or កម្លាំងអមិត្ត)18 and what in the official Vietnamese translation are labelled "hostile forces" (thế lực thù địch or lực lượng thù địch) are unable to use the territory of one against the other.19

For the CPV, "hostile forces" include those accused of attempting to use the issues of "democracy and human rights" to form political organizations and develop civil society to promote "radical" democratic tendencies to destabilize political security, bring about "peaceful evolution" and overthrow the CPV's monopoly leadership position.20 Hostile forces' tactics are said to include calling for a depoliticization of the VPA and public security forces by ending CPV control over them,21 demanding "religious freedom" for minority groups and others,22 accusing the government of failing to protect national interests,23 and doing something to precipitate war.24

In Cambodia, the phrase "unfriendly forces" has been used particularly by CPP senior security force commanders when referring to the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party...


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pp. 113-131
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