Ideology Doesn't Block Trade with Vietnam, Cambodia


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- As Cambodia prepared for the December withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and this month's celebrations of the government's 10th anniversary, an intriguing report circulated in the capital.

To provide for the expected surge of foreign guests and journalists, the government had ordered $1 million worth of beer and cigarettes from Singapore.

Only the size of the order prompted questions. Cambodia regularly imports beer and cigarettes, automobiles and stereos from neighboring countries that have labeled the Phnom Penh regime an illegitimate puppet of the Vietnamese.

These goods come across the border from Thailand and, increasingly, from Singapore through Cambodia's major seaports.

Vietnamese tourists come to Cambodia by the bus load, and these foreign consumer goods -- cheaper here than in Vietnam -- are a major attraction.

Companies from Thailand, Singapore and Japan have also been involved in a substantial amount of direct trade with Vietnam. And firms like Japan's Nissho Iwai and Kawasaki have permanent offices in Vietnam.

The governments of Thailand and Singapore have taken a harder line against Vietnam's military presence in Cambodia -- and against the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh -- than their partners in the six-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

So there is considerable irony in the fact that Singaporean and Thai merchants provide Hanoi and Phnom Penh with regular if limited access to Western goods.

The United States, in contrast, has maintained a strict economic embargo against both Vietnam and Cambodia, allowing exceptions for only a few humanitarian aid projects.

If pressed on the point, diplomats note that companies involved in trade with Cambodia and Vietnam get no government support for their activities.

"At the moment, we don't encourage trade," says one ASEAN diplomat in Bangkok. "We provide no credits or insurance. They go at their own risk."

A Japanese diplomat says his country follows a similar policy, and adds, "If there is a political settlement in Cambodia, and if they turn out to be reliable trading partners, that could change."

Officials in Vietnam and Cambodia seem amused by the image of hard-line Thailand and Singapore punching holes in the economic blockade around their countries. They also indicate there may be a future payoff for companies that have been willing to skirt the blockade.

Bui Tin, deputy editor of the Communist Party daily Nhan Dan -- The People -- cites a proverb to make the point: "A morsel of rice when you're hungry is worth a bag when you're full."

Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 13, 1989

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