In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and quickly captured its small neighbouring state. Perhaps many people have already forgotten this major international event that occurred over 40 years ago. Those who were born after the war broke out may not have any impression of it, but understanding this piece of history will help us gain insight from the past.
On 25 December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge (Democratic Kampuchea) regime. Even before the invasion, the Khmer Rouge and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) had numerous disagreements that escalated to border disputes, leading to the deaths of many civilians. At the time, the CPV was backed by the Soviet Union while the Khmer Rouge was backed by the Chinese Communist Party.
Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia
Vietnam flew the “banner of justice” when it invaded Cambodia, just like what Russia is doing with its current invasion of Ukraine. It claimed that it had taken military action to liberate its neighbour from the despotic Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot, which had committed a genocide of nearly 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. (NB: Some historians however believe that Vietnam’s invasion was initiated out of self-interest to install a government that would be friendly to its interests.)
After defeating the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam installed the puppet regime of Heng Samrin and ruled Cambodia for ten years until 1988, when it was forced to withdraw its troops.
Singaporeans below the age of 45 may not be aware that Singapore was actually one of the small countries that had campaigned vigorously on the international stage, strongly condemning Vietnam for violating Cambodia’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Since 1979, Singapore and the four other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), namely Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, banded together year after year at the United Nations General Assembly to lobby for the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and to restore Cambodia’s independence. This resolution was supported by 91 countries in its initial proposal. By 1989, the number had risen to 124. During this period, various countries, including Singapore, also helped fund, arm and train the anti-Vietnamese forces to fight against the Vietnamese military in Cambodia.
This chapter in history allows us to understand Singapore’s strong stance on the Ukraine issue now — it is not about choosing sides but about taking a clear stand against aggression.
In contrast, small countries trapped between Russia and Europe have different fates. They do not have a unifying mechanism and are unable to act collectively. Thus, each state has chosen a side to rely on, either the West or Russia.
However, history is full of unexpected twists and turns. Vietnam and Cambodia joined ASEAN in 1995 and 1999 respectively. Laos and Myanmar also joined in 1997. Along with Brunei, which gained independence in 1984, ASEAN now consists of ten member states and covers the entire Southeast Asia region, forming a force that can stand on its own outside of great power domination.
In contrast, the small countries trapped between Russia and Europe have different fates. They do not have a unifying mechanism and are unable to act collectively. Thus, each state has chosen a side to rely on, either the West or Russia. Remaining countries such as Ukraine and Georgia are still at a loss today, divided and ravaged by separatism and civil war. Caught between a rock and a hard place, which side should they choose? In the end, they have become the battleground for US-Russia rivalry.
Survival of the fittest
The examples of Cambodia and Ukraine show that the law of the jungle has always existed in international relations. And this law of the jungle, where only the fittest survive, is particularly evident in geopolitics, where the constraining power of international law and international organisations is often helpless. Small countries must do more than just defend international law, they must ensure that they have sufficient self-defence capabilities, just as how small creatures have developed their own skills to survive in the wild. None should expect predators to have mercy.
Great powers and big countries have manipulated international relations since time immemorial. While relevant international laws and organisations had been established following the end of the Second World War, the law of the jungle still exists. The US and the Soviet Union led the bipolar world during the Cold War era after the Second World War. Both camps stood in opposition to each other, while various small countries chose a side based on ideological differences, accepting the leadership and command of their respective “big brother”.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about massive changes to the balance of world power. There was immediately a power gap between the US and Russia, and the latter had no choice but to tolerate American hegemony. As conditions were not yet ripe for China, it sensibly chose to maintain a low profile and bide its time. Thus, a unipolar world emerged.
The US believed that it had no rivals on the ideological front, and so it was able to shape the hegemony of global liberalism as it saw fit. And because the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, small countries in Central and Eastern Europe desperately joined the European Union and NATO for the sake of self-preservation.
Following its four eastward expansions, NATO finally arrived at Russia’s doorstep — Ukraine. Russia thus had reason to say that it feels threatened, and both parties have been at a stalemate over Ukraine for over 20 years.
... small countries will find it tougher going forward compared with the past 30 years, because this is a more complex situation where everyone will feel the pull of the US, China and Russia to varying degrees.
But things change. Now, Russia has significantly recovered its strength while China’s economy is flourishing. Once again, the global landscape is witnessing massive changes as great power competition is back and is leading to a new multipolar world. As a result, small countries will find it tougher going forward compared with the past 30 years, because this is a more complex situation where everyone will feel the pull of the US, China and Russia to varying degrees. And since these are seismic changes, every corner of the world will feel the tremors and pressures. As the saying goes, when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.
Who would not want to avoid it? Sometimes it is just not possible. For instance, the Americas could not choose to avoid the might of the US, which did not cover up its use of the Monroe Doctrine to bully these states. In the 1960s, then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev tried to deploy missiles in Cuba; the US retaliated immediately and the Soviet Union was forced to concede. Over the years, the US has sent troops countless times to intervene in these countries’ domestic politics or change regimes by force, while the rest of the world and the UN are helpless to do anything about it, let alone impose sanctions.
As the US dominates the world and imposes sanctions left and right, and even sent troops to invade faraway Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, and trampled on international law, the international community could do nothing about it.
As the US dominates the world and imposes sanctions left and right, and even sent troops to invade faraway Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, and trampled on international law, the international community could likewise, do nothing about it. The US invaded Iraq and even lied to the world claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We were all duped and caught up in the so-called coalition of the willing, which is shameful to think back on.
Information war in the internet age
Now, the problem is back, and likewise cannot be avoided. But reactions are not all the same, possibly for two main reasons.
First, some say we should be able to stay out of the tussle between the US and Russia in faraway Ukraine, and do not need to object so vehemently. Second, some observers feel that this is different from Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, when the communist forces were coming on strong. The non-communist countries in Southeast Asia were worried about a possible domino effect, which would be a threat to survival, and so they did all they could to resist Vietnam. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also a violation of sovereignty that must be objected to. However, there is no need to respond in the same way as before, or join the ranks of those imposing economic sanctions on Russia, especially since the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly is non-binding.
While Russia and Ukraine are fighting an intense war, there is also an intense exchange of online fire among Russia, the West and China.
There are clear differences among ASEAN member states on the issue. At the latest UN emergency special session, 141 countries voted in favour of a resolution denouncing Russia, and demanding it to immediately end its invasion of Ukraine and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces. Among the ASEAN member states, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand voted in favour, while Laos and Vietnam abstained.
The different positions taken by different countries is understandable as each of them has different interests. For example, Laos and Vietnam abstained because they are heavily reliant on Russian military supplies. But how do we explain the different reactions of Singaporeans? It is possibly the result of the information war between the powers.
While Russia and Ukraine are fighting an intense war, there is also an intense exchange of online fire among Russia, the West and China. This is something unique to the internet era — while there is no smoke and gunfire, it more easily affects people’s emotions.
Internationally, the West clearly has the advantage in the online battle, because Western media (especially English-language media) pervades the entire world and controls global views, and Russia and China are far from able to provide a counterbalance to this.
Meanwhile, within Singapore, the situation is slightly different because we are a multiracial society and have two major groups with Chinese and English language backgrounds. Some people are more likely to readily accept the narrative of Western media, while others are more inclined towards the rhetoric of Chinese websites, and those holding office might want to be aware of this. Of course, it is necessary to object to invasion and the law of the jungle where the large prey on the small; at the same time, it is also necessary to manage public sentiment, especially given the impact of the internet.
Related: Why ASEAN must stand firm against Russia's invasion of Ukraine | Russian invasion of Ukraine poses geopolitical quandaries for Vietnam | China's tricky position on the Russia-Ukraine war | Why Taiwan is not Ukraine | Ukraine war: Southeast Asian responses and why the conflict matters to the region