Cambodia and Japan Consolidate Ties

Khmer Times, 3 July 2014

PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – Cambodia and Japan established diplomatic relations in 1953 and sixty years later, the bilateral ties were upgraded to a “strategic partnership” in December 2013. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated at that time: “We would like to strengthen tie-ups in addressing issues in the region and the international community.” The visit of Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida early this week was a significant step towards the implementation and consolidation of such strategic partnership.

The strategic partnership between the two countries covers a wide range of issues. The new elements of which focus on security cooperation. The signing of the memorandum of cooperation on defense cooperation and exchanges is regarded as one of the most important instruments to demonstrate such partnership, as Japan is seeking its regional security role and willing to exert an equal partner of the US in the alliance system.

With regards the electoral reform assistance, upon request made by Prime Minister Hun Sen in November last year, Japan sent its study team to discuss the issue with relevant stakeholders in Cambodia in May this year. But concrete support can only be provided after political agreement between the parties is reached. In its press release dated on 28 May, the Japanese embassy to Phnom Penh stated: “Japan considers that our assistance will be useful only when it is based on the good political agreement on the issue between the major political parties in Cambodia. In this regard, we strongly hope that the on-going discussion between CPP and CNRP will come to a successful conclusion at the earliest possible time.”

Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has played an important role in peace building, national reconstruction, and nation building in a war-torn Cambodia. Japan did win Cambodian hearts in many respects by sending its civilian peacekeeping forces, representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and volunteers to help local communities develop. In the post-conflict peace building efforts, Japan assisted Cambodia in small arms management and control. The Japan’s Assistance Team for Small Arms Management in Cambodia (JSAC) did a great job in collecting and destroying illegal weapons, building safe storage for weapons, and constructing local infrastructures in former conflict-ridden regions.

Japan is now Cambodia’s second largest aid donor country after China. Japan’s Development Assistance (ODA) focuses on infrastructure development, human resources development, institutional building, and human security projects. Since 1992, Japan has provided more than US$ 2.3 billion of development assistance to Cambodia. Japan is also one of the biggest financial contributors to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

For Japan, Cambodia is becoming an important partner in the region. Cambodia is one of the new destinations for Japanese investors. More Japanese companies are interested in setting up their factories in Cambodia to produce parts and components supplying its main production bases in Bangkok (Thailand), Hochiminh City (Vietnam), and beyond. As Japanese corporations are diversifying or even relocating their factories and business establishments from China – due to both rising cost and political tensions – Cambodia can attract more Japanese investments.

In terms of security and strategic interests, Japan is interested in neutralizing Cambodia from the Chinese sphere of influence. Assisting Cambodia to build its institutions, develop economically independent, and consolidate democratic values would help the country to play a more significant role in the region and especially to counterbalance the increasing influence of China.

Building a closer strategic partnership with Cambodia is also part of Japan’s interests. Japan has sufficient resources and military capability to do so, if its pacifist constitution is reinterpreted. However, implementing such collective self-defense may cause Japan serious tensions with China and Korea, because their relations are very much shaped by historical aggression, territorial disputes, and nationalism.

In the bilateral meeting between Cambodian foreign minister Hor Nam Hong and his counterpart Fumio Kishida, both sides agreed to hold regular meetings between the foreign and defense officials. Perhaps in the future it will be upgraded to a two-two model similar to the one that Japan recently conducted with other countries such as Australia, Russia, and the United States.

Japan also provided US$ 140 million of development assistance to Cambodia in order to build and renovate physical infrastructure including the construction of roads and drainage systems. To improve people-to-people ties, both governments agreed to start running direct flights as of this September and waiving visa requirements to diplomatic and official passport holders. It is expected that more Japanese tourists will come to visit Cambodia and more business networks will be established.

The potential benefits from deepening bilateral relations between to the two countries are considerable, particularly in the economic sector. However, it depends on whether or not Cambodia can reform quickly enough to attract more Japanese investors by eliminating corruption, building a transparent and accountable public institutions and services, and providing qualified manpower.

In addition to infrastructure development, to reduce the development disparity, Japan should support connecting Cambodian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with Japanese firms. Providing technical and financing support to the local SMEs – especially in the provinces and regions – would greatly help to reduce poverty and support the local peoples to build resilient communities.

In the security cooperation sector, Japan should also provide capacity support to implement security sector governance and security reform in Cambodia. It involves multi-stakeholders including the military, police, parliament, judiciary, private security firms, and civil society organizations. Democratic control of the armed forces is the foundation of maintaining long-term peace and stability in the Kingdom and Japan can share its experiences and expertise.

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