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New Vietnamese Leadership Won’t Affect Bilateral Relations, Experts Say

Vietnamese newly elected President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, left, and newly elected Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh pose for a photo in the National Assembly in Hanoi, Vietnam on Monday, April 5, 2021. (Hoang Thong Nhat/VNA via AP)

Cambodian analysts and politicians expect little change in bilateral relations with Vietnam as the country’s closest ally transitions to new leadership with the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet.

The National Assembly of Vietnam this week appointed the Communist Party’s Pham Minh Chinh to succeed outgoing prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who currently serves as the President of Vietnam.

According to the state-run Voice of Vietnam, the 63-year-old state security official also made changes to Phuc’s cabinet on Thursday by naming Bui Thanh Son to succeed long-term chief diplomat Pham Binh Minh as the country’s new foreign minister.

Pham Binh Minh will retain his role as deputy prime minister alongside Truong Hoa Binh and Vu Duc Dam, who is leading Vietnam’s COVID-19 response. Le Minh Khai and Le Van Thanh, known for their economic expertise, were also named deputy prime ministers.

Chinh also named Vietnam People’s Army Chief of General Staff Phan Van Giang as the new defense minister.

The Cambodian government expects continuity in the two countries’ bonhomie, said Suos Yara, a spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“Cambodia and Vietnam have a special and traditional friendship with sound solidarity, good neighborliness, and a peaceful border. Regardless of who is leading Vietnam, the people, the state, and the government of Vietnam remain Cambodia’s friends,” Yara said.

Kosal Path, a political scientist at the City University of New York in the United States, said the next five years of bilateral relations would be similar to those of the past five years, as Vietnam’s ruling party continues to be under the influence of hardline party chief Nguyen Phu Trong.

“Pham Minh Chinh is chosen to support Trong's agendas -- continue to fight corruption, focus on economic development and modernization, and accelerate military modernization in the next five years,” Kosal told VOA Khmer in an email.

Vu Quang Minh, Vietnam’s ambassador to Cambodia attested to the countries’ strong relations in an opinion piece published in the Phnom Penh Post on Thursday.

“In fact, Cambodia is among the most important partners for Vietnam’s foreign policy, development, and national security as a whole, taking into consideration the Kingdom’s strategic geographical location, for both political security and economic interests,” Vu wrote.

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives to receive a shipment of 600,000 doses of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines donated by China from ambassador Wang Wentian, at the Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia February 7, 2021. (REUTERS)
FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives to receive a shipment of 600,000 doses of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines donated by China from ambassador Wang Wentian, at the Phnom Penh International Airport, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia February 7, 2021. (REUTERS)

Incoming Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, who spent 24 years of his career in the internal and economic intelligence service, had a phone call with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday.

“PM Chinh affirmed his wish to work closely with PM Hun Sen to sustainably and effectively maintain the development of the sound neighborliness, traditional friendship, and comprehensive cooperation between the two countries and the two Governments,” a read-out of the phone call provided by Hanoi reads.

City University’s Kosal Path said Hanoi aimed to keep Vientiane and Phnom Penh close in light of growing geopolitical maneuvering by China.

“I think Hanoi can understand why Cambodia tilts closer and closer to China for economic development, but the historically-minded Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi are increasingly concerned about unchecked Chinese influence in Cambodia which continues to grow, and its implications on Vietnam's national security on its southwest flank,” he said.

Cambodia’s closeness to chief patron China has caused some tensions with old ally Vietnam, especially in light of China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

In 2019, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had to personally reassure then-Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc about speculation that China was getting military access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in the southern province of Preah Sihanouk.

Vietnam’s decision to unilaterally shut down its land borders and establish patrol tents along its border with Cambodia at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year was also a mark of “resentment and suspicion” between the two countries, Kosal Path said.

“This incident has shown that even strong traditional ties between the ruling parties in Vietnam and Cambodia can easily give way to mistrust and misperception about each other's intentions especially during crises. The leaders in Cambodia and Vietnam seem to understand the problem and work harder to build strategic trust.”