An article accepted for publication by Policy Forum but they failed to publish it.
Trump-Kim Summit in Vietnam and implications for Cambodia
By Kimkong Heng and Veasna Var
The first summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un was held in Singapore on 12 June last year. Their second high-profile meeting is set to take place in Vietnam on 27 and 28 this month. The summit aims to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula by getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange of sanctions relief and economic incentives. The selection of Vietnam as a venue for the second Trump-Kim Summit does have implications for Cambodia, Vietnam’s neighbour and traditional enemy.
Several media outlets have tried to explain why Vietnam was deemed appropriate as a good location for the second Trump-Kim Summit. Neutrality, history, geographical proximity, and security merits are believed to be the main reasons why the Southeast Asian nation is chosen for the historic summit. Both the United States (US) and North Korea have their embassy in Hanoi. Historically, the US fought against Vietnam in the Vietnam War, while North Korea used to assist the North Vietnamese communists to defeat the South Vietnamese army backed by the US.
Logistically, Vietnam is geographically close to North Korea, making it possible for Kim who might wish to travel by armoured train, his preferred way of transport. Vietnam hosted the World Economic Forum on ASEAN last year and was the venue for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in 2017. Therefore, the country appears to present few security risks for Trump and Kim and their officials.
Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam is an extraordinary event that has implications for Cambodia and Cambodian political elites. Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un have been intense rivals engaging in war of words for several months and have threatened each other with nuclear bombs. The United States and Vietnam were worse – fighting against one another in the Vietnam War in the 1970s. All parties, however, have significantly improved their relations and seem to have moved beyond their rhetorical and physical warfare. They are now working towards building good relations and settling their differences to bring about change and improvements to their respective countries and people.
In light of this, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy as two most prominent political figures in Cambodia should learn from Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un. They should seek ways to settle their differences and resolve Cambodia’s political crisis through channels of dialogue, as Trump and Kim have done and will do again at the end of this month. While Trump and Kim may be able to settle their differences through a series of dialogue and negotiations, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy tend to refuse to engage in dialogue. Although both have attempted to find common ground through a short-lived culture of dialogue, they failed and seem to be unwilling to engage in any constructive dialogue anymore.
Instead they are trying to undermine and attack one other over the issue that the European Union would withdraw its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences granted to Cambodia, if the political and human rights situation in the Kingdom does not improve. Also. they are now engaged in a high-stakes wager over the likelihood of the release of Kem Sokha, former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who was charged with treason and now placed under house arrest in Phnom Penh. According to the wager’s terms, Sam Rainsy would return to Cambodia and face imprisonment if he loses, while Hun Sen would step down from power as he promised if Kem Sokha is to be released before March 3, 2019. It is unlikely that both will stick to the wager though.
Considering the second Trump-Kim summit, Cambodia should also learn from Vietnam. Despite the terrible memories with the United States during the historic war, Vietnam has moved forward and improved its relations with Washington, while the Kingdom seems to do the opposite. Cambodia’s relations with the US does not seem to be heading in the right direction, particularly following the dissolution of the opposition in 2017. The US has requested Cambodia to repay a US$500 million war debt, a demand that prompted “expressions of indignation and outrage” from Cambodia and its people.
The US has also imposed visa sanctions on high-ranking Cambodian officials, withdrawn aid commitments, and imposed asset freezes on the head of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit. In return, the Cambodian government has condemned the US’s treatment of Cambodia and has, on many occasions, pointed the finger at the US for bombing Cambodia in the 1970s. The relations between both sides have therefore reached a new low and likely to deteriorate further.
Thus, as a neighbour of Vietnam, an ASEAN state, and a country which experienced wars during the Cold War like Vietnam, Cambodia should recalibrate its relationship with the US, reverse its democratic drift, and adopt a more flexible and inclusive approach to foreign policy. Establishing and maintaining good relations with its neighbours, ASEAN counterparts, strategic partners, and all major powers is a viable course of action that a small state with limited resources and capacities like Cambodia should try to follow.
Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and an Australia Awards Scholar.
Veasna Var is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra and a Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.