Japan’s pragmatism in its diplomatic ties with Cambodia

The Khmer Times, April 9, 2018

Unlike the US, the European Union, and some other Western countries, Japan has taken a slightly different approach towards Cambodia when it comes to sensitive issues such as democracy and human rights.

Promoting universal values constitute one of the main foreign policy objectives and interests of Japan. However, when it comes to implementation, Japan has adopted flexible engagement rather than confrontational and pressuring measures.

Japan usually avoids being viewed as interfering in the domestic affairs of other states. As for Cambodia, Japan has not directly condemned or put any pressure on the government with regard to democracy and human rights, as a show of respect of the Kingdom’s independence and sovereignty.

Some local and international civil society groups and opposition groups have called upon Japan to put more pressure on Phnom Penh to restore democracy. However, Japan is consistent in its foreign policy approach towards Cambodia by not directly interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

On many occasions, Japan has officially declared its intension and interest to see a genuine free, fair and inclusive general election in Cambodia in July 2018, with the belief that democratic consolidation will further strengthen long-term peace and development in the country. Japan also hopes that political solutions could be found among Cambodian politicians to break the current deadlock.

It should be noted that, Japan played a critical role in Cambodia’s political reconciliation after the July 1997 political crisis. As it stands, Japan is willing to help solve Cambodian political disputes based on the political will and mutual agreement of all Cambodian political factions.

Japan is one of the key actors in peace building and national reconstruction of war-torn Cambodia after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement. Regardless of certain domestic public discontent and protest, Japan sent its first peacekeeping forces to Cambodia under the United Nations flag in 1992 and offered significant support in peace-building and the national reconstruction of Cambodia, then recovering from the throes of war.

Yesterday at a bilateral meeting between Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Japan reasserted its commitment to support Cambodia to realize its development vision of becoming an upper middle-income country by 2030.

Japan pledged a grant of 500 million yen ($4.6 million) for the implementation of the Economic and Social Development Programme and a loan of 9.2 billion yen ($86 million) for the implementation of the Phnom Penh City Transmission and Distribution System Expansion Project (Phase II).

This trip to Cambodia was also an emotional one for Mr Kono, when he informed Mr Hun Sen that he first visited the Kingdom in 1992. At the time, his father Yohei Kono, the then foreign minister of Japan, was actively involved in peace building and the national reconstruction of Cambodia.

Japan will support Cambodia in developing its logistics sector including the management of seaports, special economic zones, and human resource development. These are the key solutions in infrastructure projects that Cambodia needs in order to realize its economic development goals.

The cost of logistics in Cambodia is relatively higher than that of neighbouring countries. “Hidden costs” associated with customs and transport are the main issues that need to be holistically addressed. It comes as no surprise then that customs reforms have been on top of the agenda when it comes to the logistics sector.

Cambodia and the Mekong Region play a critical role in concretising the free and open Indo-Pacific initiated by Japan lately.

Japan is going to organise a Mekong-Japan summit sometime this year to further cement Japan-Mekong ties. The upcoming summit will focus on future cooperation between Japan and the Mekong region including connectivity, public health and human resource development.

Mr Kono has personally extended his invitation to Mr Hun Sen. Cambodia in turn has reciprocated and fully supports Japan’s endeavor in deepening the Japan-Mekong partnership, as it contributes to strengthening regional integration and connectivity. Complex interdependence is the backbone of sustainable peace and development in the region.

Japan’s version of the Indo-Pacific is more inclusive and practical than that of the US and it does not have any incentive nor intention to contain China, but to work with Beijing as a partner in realising common regional interests.

Cambodia potentially can be a platform for Japan and China to build a synergy between the Japan-proposed “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and the China-proposed “Belt and Road Initiative”, and the Mekong-Japan Cooperation with the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation mechanisms.

Nonetheless, as Mekong countries experience unprecedented political transformations and transitions, Japan, as expected, will take a safe, cautious, and pragmatic approach towards them.

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