Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen was one of the eleven talking heads on a regional teleconferencing call to discuss the novel coronavirus pandemic. This call included ten heads of government in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region and the regional bloc’s general secretary.
The leaders were attending a virtual ASEAN summit on the morning of April 14, highlighting their views on the pandemic and measures that needed to be taken to protect the region. As of Tuesday, there were 30,116 reported cases in the region and 1,171 deaths from the respiratory disease.
When it was the turn of Prime Minister Hun Sen, he surprisingly called on leaders of the bloc to refrain from taking unilateral decisions that would have a socio-economic impact on the people of another country. He did not elaborate on which nations he was referring to.
Member states should avoid “heavy socio-economic damage within the region through unilateral measures such as the closure of cross-border checkpoints without prior notice,” he said.
The message was clear. The prime minister was unhappy with the March 20 decision by Vietnam to close all land borders with Cambodia to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, seemingly without consulting Cambodian authorities.
If there was any doubt of who Hun Sen was referencing, state-owned publication Agence Kampuchea Presse was more explicit. In the Khmer-language version of the ASEAN summit story, AKP mentioned Vietnam’s unilateral decision to close the border without prior consultation, impacting commerce and movement of people.
With this, Hun Sen again laid bare growing strain with long-time ally Vietnam, even as he visibly displayed his growing proximity to the chief patron, China.
At the height of the coronavirus then-epidemic in February, Hun Sen was the first international leader to visit Chinese President Xi Jinping and State Premier Li Keqiang to express solidarity with his closest ally, making no such trip to any other country affected by the viral disease thereafter.
Sok Touch, head of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, has often been employed by the government to put an academic spin to explain the administration’s actions, most notably pushing the “color revolution” narrative as a justification for dissolving the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
The academic told VOA Khmer, again using a vague reference, that the premier was upset at not being consulted on issues affecting the region.
“You can put it this way, you tell your wife clearly that you are going out and then you return home to see your wife has locked the door without informing you, how would you feel?” Sok Touch said.
Speaking to VOA Khmer on the phone, Sok Touch got a lot more precise in his analogies as the conversation continued. He surmised that all ASEAN member states had their own “big brother,” pointing to the recent thaw in Vietnam’s relationship with the U.S.
“Vietnam itself as a communist state is siding with the democratic United States, why has [Vietnam] enjoyed so much happiness [in that relationship]?” he queried. “And Cambodia siding with [China], how could Vietnam be upset with Cambodia?”
The novel coronavirus pandemic has been a lot more illustrative of Cambodia’s geopolitical sway towards China, especially in the amount of aid and assistance it has received from the Xi Jinping-led administration.
In the last few weeks, tons of medical equipment and material have been seemingly donated by China to Cambodia. This includes around 30,000 test kits for the virus, face masks, protective equipment and even 11 medical professionals – four military personnel and seven civilians – to aid in the coronavirus response.
A chunk of these donations came by way of the Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundations. The Chinese e-commerce billionaire revealed in 2018 that he was a member of the ruling Communist Party of China.
Beijing viewed its exit as the sole epicenter of the pandemic as a chance to extend its global role by assisting in the fight to stem the spread of the virus, said Stella Hong Zhang, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University.
“[It] is all very natural that this now occupies the center of China's foreign policy. After all, China has always had the ambition to be seen as a provider of global public goods,” Stella Hong Zhang said in an email.
“Moreover, it is also China's moral obligation to provide assistance to its neighboring countries such as Cambodia where many Chinese people live and where domestic capacity is lacking.”
Recent Chinese aid diplomacy has been used with dozens of other countries, especially the least developed and developing economies. But it still stands in contrast to Vietnam’s engagement with Cambodia during the pandemic.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc talked with Hun Sen in a phone call on March 27, shortly after receiving Cambodian Ambassador Chay Navuth in Hanoi, announcing additional aid Cambodia.
Both, the Chinese and Vietnamese embassies in Phnom Penh, did not respond to requests for comment nor did they provide additional information about aid supplied to Cambodia.
Koy Kuong, spokesperson for Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry, ruled out the speculation of any discord between Phnom Penh and Hanoi, adding there was no “problem at all.”
“Samdech [Hun Sen] just want to make a reminder to all ASEAN member states to inform each other better about appropriate measures, making sure people are not facing difficulties,” he added, referring to the virtual ASEAN Summit speech.
Carlyle A. Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, said Vietnam’s decisions to shut the border with Cambodia was consistent with its overall strategy to contain the coronavirus outbreak and its mistrust in Cambodia’s medical response.
The Canberra-based academic added that Vietnam was concerned about Cambodia cozying up to China amid the outbreak, as well as keeping its borders open to flights to and from the mainland.
“In sum, Hun Sen wanted to demonstrate that Cambodia was a reliable partner to China,” Thayer added.
Meas Nee, a social commentator, also agreed that Vietnam would take notice of the camaraderie between China and Cambodia, especially in the last few months.
“In this kind of situation, if Cambodia appears to ignore Vietnam...Vietnam would be more or less concerned, dissatisfied, or, at least, cautious about the development,” Meas Nee said.
Vietnam’s pandemic aid is lower, in dollar terms, when compared to the $2.1 million given by the United States to Cambodia, as well as other critical technical assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy visited the Health Ministry’s Department of Communicable Disease Control and several U.S.-aided medical facilities earlier this month to showcase American support for local specialists involved in case surveillance, contact tracing, and virus testing.
The series of visits took place after Cambodian and Chinese governments had for weeks touted their relationship, using the metric of medical aid shared, as well as China’s success in fighting off the virus, not forgetting to point to the newest epicenter of the pandemic, the United States.
“U.S. CDC staff working in Cambodia, both American and Cambodian nationals, work side-by-side with the Cambodian Ministry of Health and other stakeholders on a daily basis to plan and carry out critical work,” said Emily V. Zeeberg, spokesperson of the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.
Experts have pointed to Ambassador Murphy’s attempts at resetting the United States’ relationship with Cambodia, again keeping in mind Cambodia’s closeness with China.
He has employed a much softer tone than the State Department, which recently sanctioned two close Hun Sen allies, or even some members of Congress, who are still trying to penalize the Cambodian administration for its crackdown on the opposition, civil society, and the independent media.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Koy Kuong did not want to delve into a discussion about Cambodian geopolitical preferences, instead only saying that Cambodia shall be fair and friendly with any country.
“Our foreign policy is that we keep good ties with old friends and engage with new friends,” Koy Kuong told VOA Khmer. “We stick to this all the time regardless of whether it is pandemic time or not.”