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Cambodia ‘Should Learn from the US Move Toward Vietnam’

Sok Udom, Dean of Academic Affairs of Zaman University, Phnom Penh, discusses "Latest Developments and Outlook for Thai-Cambodian Relations" on VOA Khmer's Hello VOA radio call-in show, Thursday, March 3, 2016. (Lim Sothy/VOA Khmer)

Sok Udom said that in international relations “there is no eternal enemy or eternal friend.”

The recent announcement of unprecedented security and economic cooperation between the United States and its former adversary Vietnam provides a good lesson for Cambodia to follow, an analyst has told VOA Khmer.

Dr. Deth Sok Udom, vice rector of Cambodia’s Zaman University, told listeners to the Hello VOA live call-in program that Cambodia should seek to manage financial assistance from China more efficiently and maintain good relations with the United States.

U.S. President Barack Obama concluded a three-day visit to Cambodia’s eastern neighbor on May 25, which ended with the signing of an agreement to end the country’s long-running arms embargo against Vietnam, an enduring legacy of the Cold War.

The gesture was seen as an attempt by the U.S. to leverage Vietnam’s military capabilities in the face of Chinese activity in the South China Sea dispute, although Obama played down the significance of the move.

Sok Udom said the relationship between the states was complicated, with the U.S. role in Cambodia traced back to pre-Khmer Rouge intrigues, when the U.S. was accused of supporting a coup against then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and installing the regime known as the Khmer Republic, leading Sihanouk to create a Beijing-backed government-in-exile.

China gained the upper hand in the region, Sok Udom said, after the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, also backing the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. In response to its defeat in Vietnam, major powers including the U.S. supported the Khmer Rouge’s seat at the United Nations, while an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died under its reign.

The U.S. meanwhile strengthened partnerships with its traditional allies – Thailand and the Philippines.

However, by the early 1980s, U.S. ad Chinese interests had begun to align in the region as both powers sought to combat perceived Soviet Union encroachment in their respective spheres of influence.

Both the U.S. ad China supported the so-called resistance factions (including the remnants of the Cambodian genocidaires) which fought the Vietnamese military that had removed the Khmer Rouge from power.

While relations between all sides finally normalized in the early 1990s, the recent rise of China has reset the stage for new geopolitical rivalries.

Sok Udom said that in international relations “there is no eternal enemy or eternal friend.”

He suggested that Cambodia should realign its foreign policy away from focusing on a single superpower to keep its diplomatic options open in the future.

Chinese offsetting of aid from the West was not necessarily a positive thing for Cambodia, he said, referencing the decision to suspend relations with the U.S. in the 1960s, which contributed towards Cambodia’s slide towards civil war and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

While China is the largest investor and aid donor, the E.U. and U.S. remain the country’s biggest export markets, he added.