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Observers See Balance Shift With Vietnam, China

Cambodia's improving relationship with China has become cause for concern in Vietnam, which has long held warm ties of its own with its neighbor, according to the author of a new book.

Bill Hayton, author of “Vietnam: Rising Dragon,” told VOA Khmer in Washington the Vietnamese now fear Cambodia will become “a satellite of China.”

“So they are very, very keen to see [that] Cambodia remains a friendly country,” he said. “And obviously they are in the position to have an enormous amount of influence in Cambodia.”

Political and economic ties have so far kept Vietnam and Cambodia close, “and they want to keep that position,” said Hayton, who is also a producer for BBC World News.

In recent years, China has expanded its own political, economic and military ties with Cambodia, providing a flood of aid money in a trend that has rights activists worried.

Meanwhile, the US and Vietnam have forged stronger ties. But Vietnam also has a lot of investment in Cambodia, up 10 percent over the last year, including electricity deals, rubber plantatio ns and exports.

Observers now wonder where how these competing balances will play out.

“We have seen that the influence of China over Cambodia is enormous, and Vietnam is turning to the US,” said Chheang Vannarith, a fellow at the East-West Center and executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “So this is a crossroads that Cambodia faces.”

Of particular concern is how human rights issues play second to economic deals. All parties have become better economic partners, but the US still diverges with both China and Vietnam on human rights.

“When we look at the relationship between the US and Vietnam, we see that the human rights issue remains murky,” Chheang Vannarith said. “So with the issues of human rights and economic interests, we have to know how to balance which one is more important. I think that when the economy grows, maybe the human rights issue doesn't get any attention, because economic interests are larger.”

Hayton acknowledged that human rights in Vietnam have been overshadowed by economic interests.

While some Western countries have made inroads in democracy and opening society in Vietnam, he said, “the one thing that isn't changing is the fact that the Vietnamese Communist Party is still going to run the country.”

“The Western governments adjust their policies, and they will call for the release of dissidents,” he said. “But they are not going to impose sanctions on Vietnam, because they don't see [that] it would help their cause and wider interests.”