Vietnam urges Cambodia to cooperate over Funan Techo canal

Hanoi asks Phnom Penh to share information in a toned down message from previous call.
By RFA Staff
2024.05.06
Vietnam urges Cambodia to cooperate over Funan Techo canal Cambodian Buddhist monks stand on the foredeck of a ferry as it crosses the Mekong River from Arey Ksat to Phnom Penh, Sept. 28, 2023.
AP Photo/Heng Sinith

Vietnam has again asked Cambodia to cooperate in assessing the impact of the Funan Techo canal on its Mekong river delta, although using a more conciliatory tone than it has done in previous exchanges on the dispute between the neighbors.

Vietnam respected the legitimate interests of Cambodia in connection with the US$1.7-billion project and always treasures and gives top priority to their fine neighborliness and traditional friendship, the state Vietnam News Agency reported on Sunday, citing a foreign ministry spokeswoman.

The spokeswoman, Pham Thu Hang, said that Vietnam was highly interested in the project and expressed the wish that Cambodia would continue working closely with Vietnam and other countries on the Mekong to share information and fully assess the impacts of the project on the river’s water resources and ecological environment.

She reiterated what she called Vietnam’s consistent support, joy, and high regard for the achievements made by Cambodia in recent years.

Cambodia says the canal, which will be built by a state-owned Chinese company and will connect its southern coast with the capital, Phnom Penh, will reduce its dependence on Vietnamese ports and make significant savings.  

Vietnam is worried about the impact of the waterway on flows down into its Mekong delta rice-growing region.

Cambodia has insisted the canal will go ahead despite Vietnam’s concerns, and the neighbors have engaged in some blunt exchanges in recent weeks. 

Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer at Vietnam National University, said the latest comments showed Vietnam was adopting a more gentle approach.

“The Vietnamese government’s phrasing ‘much interested’ instead of ‘concerns’ demonstrates its desire to communicate its worries in a way that does not infuriate Cambodia,” the Vietnamese analyst said. “This is vastly different from the language used to describe other security issues, notably the South China Sea … Additionally, this subtle tone suggests that Vietnam is receptive to dialogue aimed at fostering shared interests.”

‘Sore spot in relationship’

It was the second time in less than a month the Vietnamese government has asked for more information about the proposed 180-km (112-mile) canal project which, according to some Vietnamese experts, would reduce the flow of the Mekong river into Vietnam by up to 50%.

The Mekong delta is home to 17.4 million people and is Vietnam’s main rice-producing area.

MAP.jpg
Map of the proposed Funan Techo canal. (Cambodia National Mekong Committee)

Vietnamese experts have suggested that their government  should ask Phnom Penh to delay the project for further discussions.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has also called for more information about the canal. 

There are also concerns that the canal will open access to Vietnam’s western border, making it vulnerable, especially as China’s navy appears to have secured a semi-permanent presence in Ream nearby on the Cambodian coast.

“The canal could allow the Chinese navy to travel upstream from the Gulf of Thailand and the Ream Naval Base to Vietnam’s western border,” wrote Khang Vu, a political scientist at Boston College in the U.S., who warned about “the revival of the land threat” to Vietnam.

“As China expands its influence in Cambodia in addition to Vietnam’s weakening leverage over Laos, the Chinese encirclement of Vietnam is growing more comprehensive.” 

A major China-Cambodia joint military exercise –  Golden Dragon 2024 – is to take place later this month, according to the Chinese defense ministry.

Cambodia’s former prime minister Hun Sen has said Cambodia “will not negotiate” with Vietnam.

“Hanoi should compile a comprehensive report indicating potential impacts of the canal project and share it with Phnom Penh and the Mekong River Commission (MRC),” said the Vietnamese analyst, Sang, adding however that he was “not confident about Cambodia’s willing reception.”

The MRC is an intergovernmental organization formed by Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared river’s water resources and ensure its sustainable development.

“The Cambodian government’s resolve to move on with the project, despite Vietnam’s concerns, suggests that this matter may persist as a sore spot in the bilateral relationship,” Sang told RFA.

The construction of the canal is set to begin later this year and is being heralded by Cambodia’s leadership as a national interest. Hun Sen’s son – Prime Minister Hun Manet – stated on Friday that the canal project “has sparked a significant nationalist movement.”

Edited by Mike Firn.

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