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Cambodian Security in the Cold War: What if Prince Sihanouk did not join the Communist Camp?

Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, announced the US military involvement in Cambodia, 30 April 1970.

Cambodia national security was severely threatened by the Vietnam War, which involved the US and its allies and communist Vietnam and its principal backers, the Soviet Union and China. It is worthwhile to look back at the strategic direction of Cambodian foreign policy during the Cold War. What would be the best option for Cambodia to avoid the Vietnam war? If Cambodia did not join the communist camp but strictly maintain a neutral policy, would it consequently be free from the Khmer Rouge genocide?

The Vietnam War is also known as the Second Indochina War (1955-1975), for it involved not only Vietnam but also at large the neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. One point you might have never heard about in the US bombings in Cambodia. The Vietcong's use of these countries territory as its sanctuaries draw the US bombardments and the war was extended to the entire Indochina.

Francois Ponchaud in his book 'Cambodia Year Zero' (1978) observed that Lon Nol, after his overthrow of Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, gave the green light to US bombings in Cambodia to destroy the Vietcong (aka National Liberation Front) and North Vietnam sanctuaries in eastern Cambodian border. But it was South Vietnamese, the US allies, who were operating bombardments which mainly directed on civilians in the villages rather than its enemies in revenge for Lon Nol government massacre and deportations of thousands of Vietnamese from Cambodia. 

This action dramatically caused thousands of lives of the villagers, and as a result, they loathed the US-backed Lon Nol regime and joined the Khmer Rouge guerrillas (popularly known as 'chol prey maquis') also in response to Sihanouk announcements from Peking to fight against Lon Nol and the American. Many observers and historians on the Indochina War marked the 70s as the beginning of Cambodia's three-decade civil war, and the end of which was also the end of the Cold War (23 Oct 1991). In the Cold War, Cambodia became the pawns of the superpowers chessboard, and its survival was threatened by its traditional enemies, Thailand and Vietnam.

It is important to analyse Prince Sihanouk's choice of a policy of non-alignment or neutrality. After Prince Sihanouk refused to join the US-led SEATO, visited Peking and established formal diplomatic relations with People Republic of China (PRC) all happened in the year 1958, he wrote in his article published by the Foreign Affairs that Cambodia's neutrality was "a dictate of necessity", given its small size of population (7,000,000) and territory (181,035km), its weakness in economic and military resources, and its geographical location in between the tiger Thailand and the crocodile Vietnam. 

He had a clear strategic calculation of the Cold War, believing that the communists would win the war in Indochina and the American would have to pullout from Vietnam. Ultimately, China would be rising and becoming the dominating player in Asia. To him, any aggressive action or by joining the Western bloc against giant China having geographical proximity with Cambodia would be a risky choice then and thereafter. On the other hand, the US allies, Thailand and South Vietnam were the traditional enemies of Cambodia and the real threats to her independence, security, survival and territorial integrity. 

And perhaps, due to the sympathy to its allies, the US hesitated to ensure military umbrella for Cambodia, though it provided substantial economic and military aid to Cambodia until it was postponed by Prince Sihanouk in 1963. Two things that forced Prince Sihanouk to dislike the American whom he called "អាគាំង/the bell, the fool" one was the US support to the Khmer Serei (the rightist group) and another was the US media which frequently and furiously attacked on his foreign policy position to have been pro-China rhetoric. Unlike China's persuasive diplomacy, which worked well to win the heart of the Prince, the US behaviours impacted his policy choice to a great extent.

In pursuit of neutral policy for which he won China's enthusiasm, Prince Sihanouk took advantage of the Cold War superpower rivalries to Cambodian benefits. He played a realist variant of balancing tactic. First, he used China against Thailand and (South and North) Vietnam if they would possibly attack Cambodia. 

Second, he hoped that, by not adopting any policy which was directly or indirectly hostile to China, China would not interfere in Cambodian domestic politics and not support the communist elements (the root of Khmer Rouge) in Cambodia. 

Third China would provide him space in international policy manoeuvre; he might be free to criticise or applaud any country. 

And finally, by not fully allied with China or the communist bloc, Cambodia could receive aid and development assistance from both blocs (the West and the East).
From left: Mao Zedong, Peng Zhen, Norodom Sihanouk and Liu Shaoqi
Text caption: Judging that relations with China were important to Cambodia's fragile neutrality. Prince Norodom Sihanouk (in the dark tunic) went to Peking in 1965 for discussions with Chairman Mao Tse-tung (left). (Center of Military History)

Aligning with the West vs Maintaining Neutrality

The prince was right in his prediction about the Americans; they were defeated. But wrong about the Chinese; they strongly supported communist elements in Cambodia. The 1967 Samlaut Uprising in Battambang was a clear example of China's support for the communist movement in Cambodia. If he joined the Western bloc, what was the challenge? Would we escape from the Khmer Rouge and would we have stability? Or if he did not derivate from non-alignment or neutral policy, what would happen?

Above all, we must accept that Sihanouk's neutral policy could keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam war for about 16 years since independence. By 1966, the Prince reviewed his foreign policy by accommodating the communist bloc (provided sanctuaries to the Vietcong and North Vietnam forces and allowed the use of Kompong Som port for material shipping from China to the sanctuaries along Cam-Viet border).

If aligning with the West, Cambodia would become directly involved in the Vietnam War from which Sihanouk had used all his political leadership to avoid. US military troops including the South Vietnam troops would station in Cambodian soil to fight the communist Vietnamese. As a result, Cambodia would be possibly a hot battlefield between the West and the East (US-led alliances vs Vietnam backed by USSR, PRC and other communist states). 

It's worthy to note that since pre-independence, a large number of Vietnamese soldiers had already been on Cambodian soil and they provided military training to Cambodian communist guerrilla whom Sihanouk depicted 'Khmer Viet Minh'. 

Now by allying with the West, Cambodia automatically turned against the East. The end of the Vietnam war and its aftermath clearly proved that communist bloc defeated the US and the latter had to withdraw from Indochina and thus left Cambodia helpless and defenceless under the attack of the communist Vietnamese. In this way, I think, the strong united (North-South) Vietnam would definitely annexe Cambodia into what it called 'Indochina Federation' composed of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in which Vietnam would be the leading brother. 

However, China would not allow Vietnam to take over Indochina easily as it also wanted to enlarge its sphere of influence and having a stronger Vietnam on its backyard was perceived as a serious security threat. Inevitably, the conflict between pro-Vietnam- and pro-PRC Cambodian communists would have created a protracted civil war. 

And if the pro-PRC won, Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary clique would have come to power and might have adopted the same disastrous policy as what they did during the Khmer Rouge period. But if the pro-Vietnam won, Cambodia would have been nothing but an annexed part of Vietnam as what the US allies, South Vietnam, turned to be after the US pullout; the end of survival as an independent state, Sihanouk feared the most. 

Even Thailand also could not have been free from danger from the communist war of expansion in entire Southeast Asia. Here, it is called 'Domino Theory' meaning that if the communist won, they would widen communism to surrounding Southeast Asia.
Princess Monique, Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Ieng Sary in 1973.

It seems that we had no better option, right? Or it was even more dangerous to join the expectedly losing side (US), was it? Even Cambodia had maintained 'non-alignment', there was no better hope. Ironically, China and North Vietnam were members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Cambodia's neutral policy was at their great advantage, and Sihanouk used to acknowledge it publicly.

The luckier way was only that, though it was very unlikely if, with Cambodian support, the US could win the war. But history proved that in the late 1960s, as the war in Vietnam was prolonged, the US had begun to lose public support at home. Those mentally-suffered veterans who fought in the war and the families of those who died in the war strongly protested against the American war in Indochina. 

Impacted by domestic pressure but not because of the American military weakness, American exit (face-saving) strategy was initiated by President Nixon, commonly known as 'Nixon Doctrine' in 1969. It was not until 1973, Paris Peace Accords signed by the US and North Vietnam to end the war, which also included peace and stability in Cambodia and Laos. 

However, Sihanouk and Pol Pot refused to attend the conference and did not recognise the Accords. When American troops completely withdrew from South Vietnam in 1975, the North quickly took over the South a few months later than Pol Pot toppled Lon Nol regime (17 April). Therefore, it is clear that even with Cambodian support, there would be no difference in the US fate in the efforts to protect its allies.

What would be the fate of Sihanouk and his pro-US rightist followers then? Probably they would have exiled in the USA or somewhere in the West and instantly seen Cambodia fallen completely under communist control either by PRC or USSR-backed Vietnam.

Now we just leave the conditions said above aside and turn to what really happened. There was an open option to end the war in Cambodia before it ran into catastrophe, that is, to join Paris Peace Accords in 1973. China and the US then supported Sihanouk to come back to power in conciliation with Lon Nol. They believed that only Sihanouk could guarantee the country peace and stability, and they wanted independent and neutral Cambodia after the end of the Vietnam War. 

As said earlier, Sihanouk along with Pol Pot, seeing that Lon Nol regime was about to fall, rejected that offer. The main cause was that, personally, he wanted to see Lon Nol and his US-backed regime being destroyed in revenge of the 1970 coup d'etat which ousted him from power. Hereafter, Sihanouk became the Prince of Darkness as he helped bring Pol Pot to power, though he was also being betrayed by Pol Pot. Is it a karmic effect? He was also the Prince of Light because, without his leadership against the foreign forces in the 1980s, Cambodia would have been a single-party state under Vietnamese hegemon today. Many people have often overlooked this point of his role.

Nevertheless, Small states are structurally weak and vulnerable to external shocks in the anarchic international system. Small states often played the role of the paws of great power politics. A state's foreign policy requires economic and military support for better goal achievement. On the other hand, the small state's neutrality will not work without a guarantee from superpowers. The famous assertion about the strong and the weak: "The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must" (Warner 1954, 302).

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