Japan Eyes Cambodia in its Mekong Strategy

15 February 2015

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Sar Kheng, is in Japan through Thursday of this week to strengthen bilateral cooperation between the two countries, as well as to enhance the Japan-Mekong partnership. He will deliver the opening remarks at the Fifth Meeting of the Public-Private Cooperation in the Mekong region and exchange views with Japanese leaders.
The Mekong region occupies a key strategic and economic position in East Asia. It has become a ground for major powers to compete and get access to natural resources and expand their sphere of influence. Moreover, the rising influence of China has alarmed Japan, the US and India.
To counterbalance the rising power of China, Japan has initiated different cooperation mechanisms to strengthen ties between Japan and the countries in the Mekong region. The first annual Japan-Mekong Foreign Ministers Meeting took place in 2008, and the first annual Japan-Mekong Summit took place one year later.
At the 6th Japan-Mekong Summit in Tokyo in November of last year, Japan committed 600 billion yen ($5 billion) to support development and infrastructure projects of the Mekong region under the three pillars: “Enhancing Mekong Connectivity,” “Developing Together,” “Ensuring Human Security and Environmental Sustainability.”
Japan has assisted the Mekong countries in drafting the “Mekong Industrial Development Vision” and concretizing the Southern Economic Corridor and East-West Economic Corridor. In addition, Japan supports the functioning of the Mekong River Commission in sustainably managing water resources and biodiversity.
The construction of hydropower dams along the main stream of the Mekong River poses serious economic and security threats to the downstream countries. It is the source of regional disputes and conflicts. Without an effective regional institution to manage the differences, the riparian countries may potentially go to war over the access to and management of the water resources. Japan may use the water dispute to challenge the upstream country, China.
India, from the Japanese point of view, plays a crucial role in balancing the rising power of the China in the region. Therefore, Japan has invited India into the discussion by linking the infrastructure and economic corridors between India and the Mekong region. Japan has invested in infrastructure projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Dawei special economic zone project.
Although Cambodia is the closest friend of China in the region, Japan has high hopes that the direction of Cambodia’s foreign policy remains on the path of neutrality. Cambodia needs economic assistance for its own survival and security. The only way not to allow Cambodia to fall into the strong Chinese sphere of influence is to support economic development and poverty reduction in the country.
Japan also calculates that strong democratic values and institutions can assist Cambodia and the Mekong region to build their own identity and strengthen their independent and neutral position in the region. Although Japan has not put its democratic card up front in its approach to the region, democratic values and good governance are principally attached in their development assistance and cooperation.
Japan has agreed to support electoral reforms in Cambodia, clearly demonstrating Japan’s strong interest in promoting democracy in the region. Cambodia is the first country to which Japan has ever provided such support. It is a laboratory for Japan’s development assistance in promoting electoral democracy in the Mekong region.
Cambodia, like other regional countries, defines national interest and security as economic development. To gain influence in this country, economic tools are required. Development assistance is just a short-term solution to development. Investment and trade are the long-term solutions.
Japan will continue to expand its economic presence in Cambodia and the Mekong Region. More Japanese firms are interested in investing in the region.  The bilateral trade volume between Japan and the Mekong region is increasing, partially due to intra-industry trade.
Japan is clearly China’s main competitor in the Mekong region. Cambodia is at the forefront of this power competition between these two regional powers. Cambodia is walking on a tightrope, as long as the bilateral tensions between China and Japan are not eased.

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