US, Vietnam Attempted Chinese Balancing Act

Fearful that Prime Minister Hun Sen “may be turning Cambodia in­to the next Burma,” US and Viet­namese officials held a number of meetings in 2005 and 2006 during which they discussed how best to influence the country in order to counter China’s growing role, diplomatic cables released by anti-secrecy organization Wiki­Leaks show.

In several discussions between Vietnamese leaders and visiting US officials, the two sides outlined a growing need for re­newed engagement with Mr Hun Sen, while one senior official in Hanoi lamented that the premier no longer listened to Viet­nam, ac­cording to the cables, which were released last week.

The half-dozen diplomatic ca­bles, a small fraction of the thousands that have been released by WikiLeaks since last year, paint a picture of an increasingly frustrated Vietnam, unable to exert the in­fluence it once had over Mr Hun Sen as he grows more powerful and politically savvy, particularly in his relations with China.

During a February 2006 meeting with US Senate Appropria­tions Committee Majority Clerk Paul Grove, Vietnamese officials com­plain of having lost their stake in Cambodia to China.

“Hun Sen does not listen to Viet­nam,” Vietnamese Vice For­eign Min­­i­ster Le Van Bang is quoted in the cables as saying.

“Vietnam has no leverage, China, however, has leverage—and thus Hun Sen’s ear. Regard­less, Vietnam will continue to press Cambodia to act responsibly,” he adds.

Talk of an irresponsible Cam­bo­dia pervades the conversations between the US and Vietnamese officials.

In a 2005 meeting, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan tells US State Department Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Eric John: “The situation in Cambodia is ‘very serious,’ and the world community should seek ways to encourage Cambodia to develop in the right way to secure peace, stability and prosperity.”

Concerns in 2005 and 2006 about Cambodia and Mr Hun Sen appear to be related to the ar­rest of opposition members and government critics at that time.

In 2005, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, along with SRP parliamentarian Chea Poch, were charged with defamation; both fled Cam­bodia after the National As­sem­bly stripped them of parliamentary immunity. Mr Rainsy was later sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison. Another SRP lawmaker, Cheam Channy, was also stripped of immunity and sentenced to seven years in jail by the Military Court.

Despite the perceived volatility of the situation in Phnom Penh at that time, officials in both Hanoi and Washington appear to recognize the importance of approaching Cambodia with a deft touch.

In discussions in early 2006 with US Senate Appropriations Committee Majority Clerk Paul Grove, Foreign Ministry Director General Do Ngoc Son beseeched Washington to tread lightly in Cambodia.

“[Mr Son] cautioned that, if the United States continues to harp on human rights, HIV/AIDS and corruption in Cambodia, it will be forced to withdraw from Cambodia the way it has with Burma, thus abdicating all influence to China,” the cable notes.

“Grove acknowledged that Hun Sen is a complex and complicated leader, and that the United States cannot walk away from Cambodia without allowing China to fill the vacuum,” the cable continues.

Throughout their conversations, China looms a large threat.

During a February meeting with Vietnam’s Le Van Bang, the US’ Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Chris­topher Hill is told: “China has been infusing Cambo­dia with cash, including a recent $13 million non-condition gift, that demonstrates its growing influence there.”

To offset their influence, Mr Ban recommends, Washington should consider extending an invitation to Mr Hun Sen.

“He [Mr Bang] further suggested that building comfort level of communication and inviting Hun Sen to visit the United States could help strengthen the US message,” the cables state.

But whether either country truly expected to get their desired foothold is uncertain.

“[Vietnam’s Assistant Foreign Minister Son] observed wryly that Hun Sen is very shrewd and listens to Vietnam only when it is both con­venient and profitable for him to do so,” reads a Feb 2006 US cable.

“Hun Sen is also very capable of manipulating his neighbors and other countries in the region, Son said,” according to the cables.

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