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Why India Supported Vietnam and the PRK during the Cambodian Conflict?

A total of 1,373 personnel from the Indian Army participated in the United Nations Transitional Authority In Cambodia (UNTAC), which was set up to supervise a ceasefire, disarm combatants, repatriate refugees and monitor the conduct of free and fair elections, 1992-1993. Image: in.one.un.org

India was the only non-communist country that recognised and then established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of Kampuchea (later renamed the State of Cambodia). The standpoint of Indian academics on Cambodia-Vietnam complicated relations in the 1980s has to be understood through, and have been reflected in, the Indian government position on the Cambodian conflict, which mainly determined its relations with the Soviet Union, the deteriorated relations with China in the aftermath of the 1962 Indo-Sino border war which drove New Delhi into the Soviet orbit, and Indian leaders’ admires for Vietnamese freedom fighters against imperialism and colonialism in Indochina.

Strategically, the Soviet Union was an ally of Vietnam and backed Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent control of Cambodia, which, thus, brought India ever closer to Vietnam and the Phnom Penh regime, which was under the Vietnamese tutelage during the Cold War. China factor also influenced New Delhi’s decision to back the Vietnamese venture in Cambodia and its Phnom Penh ally. It was a strategic decision. India might share a similar feeling it had in the humiliated Indo-Sino border war when China attacked Vietnam in the north in 1979. India was one of the few non-communist nations that recognised the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin regime in 1980 (Mukerjee, 1980). India’s political recognition, indeed, provided the Heng Samrin regime with significant diplomatic legitimacy. It also helped Vietnam to stand up against China. Prince Sihanouk pinpointed the geostrategic reason for India’s alignment with Vietnam in the Indochina conflict in his interview with India Today in December 1981. He deliberately said to the Indian interviewer that:
China helps the Khmer Rouge because she needs them to fight by proxy her mortal enemies Vietnam and the USSR. The US constantly votes for the Khmer Rouge at the UN because they are the only ones with the capacity to wound its enemies, which are, again, the Vietnamese and the Soviets. Your country, India, did not recognise the “quisling regime” at Phnom-Penh for the sake of its “beautiful eyes”, but only because of its difficulties with China and its indispensable friendship with the enemies of China and US, that is to say, Vietnam and the USSR. (Chandran, 1981)
It is noteworthy that Indo-Vietnamese ties had been strengthened and smoothened without any irritation or conflict since then. However, New Delhi’s recognition of the Vietnamese-client PRK led to the deterioration of India and ASEAN relations for about a decade. On the other hand, India’s drifting towards the Soviet bloc had caused a “sharp diplomatic clash” between New Delhi and the pro-US ASEAN at the UN, especially on the issue of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia (Mahbubani and Sng, 2017: 123).

Equally important, the first generation of Indian leaders, like the first Prime Minister of independent India Jawaharlal Nehru, was enthusiastic about nationalist movement leaders against imperialism and colonialism in Southeast Asia, especially Ho Chi Minh (Ayoob, 1990). Besides that, the Sino-Indian deteriorated relations due to border disputes in 1962 also forced India’s decision to recognise the Heng Samrin regime and withdrew its support for the Khmer Rouge, the ally of China. In short, it meant ‘the friend of my enemy is also my enemy.’ For this reason, the term ‘intervention’ on the humanitarian ground has been preferred over ‘invasion’ in Indian literature on Vietnam’s role in Cambodia in the 1980s. 

However, the Indian stance led to the deterioration of the ASEAN-New Delhi relationship for a decade until the end of the Cold War. During the international legitimacy crisis, political support from India was significant. It was fondly remembered and recalled in Vietnam and especially Cambodia under Hun Sen premiership. In this connection, it is interesting to mention that Prime Minister Hun Sen was one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's special guests, among ten ASEAN Heads of States and Governments, during celebrations of the 2018 India’s Republic Day and the 25th Anniversary of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations. During this particular visit, he managed to meet with Congress leaders such as its president Rahul Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (First Post, 2018).

In sum, India was one of the regional players in the Cambodian conflict during the Cold War. With the deteriorated relationship with China in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indo war, which pulled India into the Soviet-led camp, New Delhi recognised the Vietnamese-backed PRK regime. Indian position was motivated by its national interest keeping in mind its border conflict with China, Vietnam’s principal strategic adversary in Indochina.


Ayoob M (1990) India and Southeast Asia: Indian Perceptions and Policies. London and New York: Routledge.

Chandran R (1981) Any help coming from India would be welcome: Norodom Sihanouk. India Today, 31 December. Available at: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/interview/story/19811231-any-help-coming-from-india-would-be-welcome-norodom-sihanouk-773567-2013-10-23 (accessed 24 March 2021).

First Post (2018) Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh call on visiting Cambodian PM Hun Sen, discuss bilateral issues. January 27. Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/india/rahul-gandhi-manmohan-singh-call-on-visiting-cambodian-pm-hun-sen-discuss-bilateral-issues-4323003.html (accessed 6 March 2020).

Mahbubani K and Sng J (2017) The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace. Singapore: NUS Press.

Mukerjee D (1980) Kampuchea will dominate Indo-ASEAN talks. Times of India, June 21. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Times of India pg. 1.

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