Last month, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam carried out the first-ever iteration of a joint rescue drill between them, an exercise that was years in the works. Though the interaction was just one of many developments within the ties between these three mainland Southeast Asian countries, it nonetheless spotlighted ongoing efforts by the three countries to boost trilateral defense cooperation between them, in spite of lingering bilateral challenges and an increasingly complex and contested regional and global environment.
Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, three mainland Southeast Asian countries with a complex history and some unresolved border management issues between them, have nonetheless been working through ways to manage shared opportunities and challenges through a range of cooperative mechanisms. While this had initially been shaped through economics-focused mechanisms such as the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam (CLV) development triangle area, there have also been efforts to build out security cooperation across their militaries as well as other actors including legislatures.
This is occurring amid other evolving dynamics, including China’s increasing defense links with Cambodia, as evidenced by its presence at the country’s Ream Naval Base, and Vietnam’s own efforts to boost security ties with Cambodia and Laos. It is also a case in point regarding how, amid the focus on minilateral mechanisms like the Quad or AUKUS, Southeast Asian states themselves have also tried to develop various security configurations of their own in order to advance their own interests.
Last month, this manifested with the holding of the first-ever joint rescue drill of its kind between the three countries. The drill in question, which took place in Naxaithong district in Laos’ Vientiane prefecture, had been an outcome of the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam defense ministers’ meeting that was held in Hanoi back in 2019, where the respective countries all agreed to organize a series of interactions and activities to boost their security ties. Per The Vientiane Times, the exercise saw the participation of nearly 500 troops from the three militaries, with personnel performing search and rescue work pertaining to floods, landslides, and collapsed construction with toxic chemicals. The closing ceremony of the exercise was attended by the defense ministers of the three countries and the hosting leader, Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith, and participants were able to watch a demonstration and visit a simulated field hospital.
The interaction is not without significance. As mentioned, this is the first-ever joint rescue drill of its kind between the three countries, and while it comes years after it was agreed and after an ebb in live engagements due to COVID-19, it nonetheless is notable in this respect. More generally, it spotlights the growing trilateral defense cooperation between these countries, in a context where neighborly relations remain important, as evidenced by the latest defense white papers of Vietnam and Cambodia, published in 2019 and 2022, respectively.
The content of this collaboration was evident in the interactions between the three defense ministers held on September 14 in Vientiane, where they addressed a range of topics including increasing exchanges between their militaries in border region provinces as well as enhancing coordination in responding to non-traditional security challenges such as human and drug trafficking and smuggling. This also offered a window into upcoming engagements, including Vietnam’s promotion of an international defense exhibition to be held by its defense ministry in Hanoi in December.
To be sure, what exactly this means for wider trilateral cooperation and how it will evolve in the future remains unclear. Trilateral defense cooperation between Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam has thus far evolved quite gradually, and it has often taken several years for more ambitious strategic ideas to take hold even as the density of engagements and interactions on the ground increases in areas like border exchanges. Furthermore, while official public readouts may play up the progress made within trilateral cooperation, they can also understate the significant challenges that remain. These include lingering border management and war legacy-related issues that can occasionally flare up, the greater geopolitical penetration of mainland Southeast Asia by other powers including China, and the balancing acts that Laos and Cambodia are performing relative to their larger mainland Southeast Asian neighbor within trilateral ties and the dynamics of those asymmetric relationships.
Nonetheless, developments on this front will be important to watch in the coming months and years. While it is no doubt important to continue to assess the effects of intensifying major power competition on mainland Southeast Asia in the wake of developments such as U.S.-China rivalry and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is equally critical to pay close attention to the evolution of intraregional dynamics as well and the engagements that they produce. Apart from the practical contributions that these engagements can make in advancing capacity-building and promoting greater trust, they can also reveal details about the indigenous initiatives being advanced by individual countries to respond to the opportunities and challenges that they see in their geopolitical environment.