Kishida in Cambodia: Seeking Convergences of interests to counter China
Prof Rajaram Panda

Cambodia as the ASEAN Chair has been attracting attention of some important countries such as the US and Japan, both of which have shown increased willingness to work together with Cambodia in the interest of regional peace and stability. This new outlook needs to be understood in the context of the perception that Cambodia had been leaning more towards China in recent times. The efforts of the US and Japan are now being seen as getting Cambodia back from the China orbit and working towards maintaining ASEAN centrality by engaging more with the other member nations of the organisation and take leadership role in resolving the Myanmar crisis.

Earlier in January, US President Joe Biden wrote to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen committing the US adherence to ASEAN centrality and extended support to the ASEAN-centered “regional architecture” which is at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region.[1] A special US-ASEAN summit is likely to be held soon. Indeed, ASEAN remains at the heart of US foreign policy and a major trading partner that could help curb the growing influence of its strategic rival China. An increased US presence in the ASEAN is likely in the coming days.

With the US support, the immediate challenge faced by Cambodia as the ASEAN Chair is to play an engaging role in resolving the ongoing crisis in Myanmar through provision of humanitarian assistance, support for ASEAN’s five-point consensus, which chiefly seeks to facilitate negotiation and mediation of the dialogue process, and by continuing to support the core principles of ASEAN centrality. When the US-ASEAN summit takes place, dates for which are being worked out at the moment – Cambodia is expected to play the leadership role in cooperation with other ASEAN countries discussing the matter of finding common solutions and mechanisms for post-Covid-19 ASEAN economic recovery and regional security cooperation.

Against this backdrop, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s two-day visit from 20-21 March 2022 to Cambodia after his successful visit to India assumes added significance. This was Kishida’s second visit to Cambodia after his first visit to the country in 2014 when he was Japan’s Foreign Minister. Though the main focus of the visit was to strengthen bilateral ties and discuss matters of economic and security cooperation, what hogged the limelight was the issue of Russia’s military operation on Ukraine and the Myanmar crisis.[2] Sharing the view that Russian invasion of Ukraine was a clear violation of international law and therefore unacceptable, both Japan and Cambodia co-sponsored the UN resolution denouncing Russia’s military action.

Japan’s economic assistance for the development of Cambodia remains as the fulcrum of the bilateral ties, though recent developments in the surrounding region make the situation more complex. This requires more coordinated and robust response by all stakeholders so that regional peace and stability are not dramatically altered. Japan has helped the Kingdom in the demining sector by providing demining tools and expert assistance. Japan has been the biggest donor to the mine action sector in the Kingdom, particular to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC). The aid has been directed in the form of technical equipment such as demining machines, detection systems, demining toolboxes, demining logistics and financial support.

Japanese support in the supply of clean water has also helped Cambodia. In the humanitarian sector, Cambodia has also been a beneficiary of Japanese donation of 1.3 million doses of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, besides being a recipient of a loan amount of 45 billion Yen (over $377 million) for fighting Covid-19. [3] Japan has also committed to support for the development of Preah Sihanouk Autonomous Port. This port has already been identified as a pillar for the development of Cambodia.

The year 2023 shall mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Cambodia as well as the 10th anniversary of their strategic partnership and Kishida’s visit was seen to have prepared the groundwork for celebration of these important milestones in the bilateral relationship by organising series of events at that time. Politically, Japan views Cambodia as an important strategic partner and honed synergy on common bilateral and regional issues whenever possible. In particular, for Japan Cambodia is an important player in the Mekong River strategy as Japan realises that all countries along the river play an important role in maritime geopolitical issues so that China’s growing presence can be monitored and checked. Both have also participated in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept first introduced in 2016. Japan’s support in the construction of essential infrastructure such as seaports, bridges, roads, and electricity and water supply has contributed to Cambodia’s economic development. In particular, Japan’s support to Cambodia’s development sectors such as the Sihanoukville Port as the “hub of principal ports” for Cambodia, Mekong region and beyond is very important in the realm of Cambodia’s infrastructural development.

Issues of democracy, human rights and rule of law also figured in the discussion. In fact the joint statement made it amply clear that Japan commits to these principles by supporting elections and promotion of dialogue between the Cambodian government and civil society, the enhancement of governance through civic engagement, and technical legal assistance. [4] Hun Sen seemed to have redeemed his reputation by receiving the endorsement from Kishida and therefore expressed his gratitude for Japan’s efforts as the penholder of the resolution on Advisory Services and Technical Assistance for Cambodia at the UN Human Rights Council which urges the Cambodian government to take measures to improve its human rights situation.

Among other level of cooperation between the two nations, Japan’s support for the sustainable supply of electricity to remote areas of Cambodia through a new partnership with the UN Development Program and the Ministry of Mines and Energy providing electricity to 1,300 households in seven provinces is noteworthy. The Cambodian government has prioritised access to energy by the people for the past two decades. As a result, there has been a sharp increase in access to electricity supply – from 6.6 per cent in 2000 to 97.53 per cent in 2021.[5] Under the Inclusive Renewable Energy Access in Rural Areas project, people shall have now direct access to clean, affordable and reliable energy. In particular, people residing in remote islands in the Tonle Sap Lake area of Kampong Chhnang province and on the Mekong River in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces shall benefit.

Kishida’s visit also led to the initiation of discussion on the possibility of entering into a bilateral free trade agreement. Hun Sen requested Kishida to convince Japanese importers to buy more Cambodian “priority” agricultural products, and encourage prominent Japanese companies to invest in the Kingdom.[6] Hun Sen exuded optimism that major Japanese multinational conglomerates such as Panasonic Corp, Toshiba Corp, Mitsubishi Electric Corp and Yamaha Corp are potential investors in projects in Cambodia. The Cambodian government promulgated a new Law on Investment in October 2021 keeping potential Japanese investors in mind to foster business expansions. Hun Sen and Kishida further agreed to work on further improving the investment climate in Cambodia, through bilateral investment agreements and public-private sector meetings. Other areas for deepening cooperation are manufacturing, energy, tourism and other economic sectors, as well as security, communication networks, and intellectual exchanges.

These appear to be promising and ambitious but there are other issues that too need to be addressed to realise the afore-mentioned targets. The Japanese Business Association of Cambodia (JBAC) has raised concern with regard to calculation of income tax for foreign employees of their members’ representative offices and tax on additional benefits and demand that the Department of Taxation sorts this out.[7]

Stress on Myanmar Issue

As a major policy thrust, Kishida wanted Cambodia as the ASEAN Chair to become more pro-active towards persuading the junta in Myanmar to stop violence against the civilian population. [8] Kishida also called upon Hun Sen to use his good offices and ensure that flow of weapons to Myanmar is stopped and all parties exercise utmost restraint. Hun Sen sent his trusted colleague, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn as ASEAN’s Special Envoy on a three-day visit to meet with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – chairman of the ruling State Administration Council (SAC) – on 21 March. Sokhonn was accompanied by Minister of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation Cham Prasidh; ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi; ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) Executive Director Lee Yam Ming; officials from the ASEAN Secretariat and AHA Centre; and other senior Cambodian government officials. The aim was to distribute humanitarian assistance and encourage political consultation and dialogue. The mission’s objective was also to persuade the military junta to release political detainees, return to normalcy, and restore democratic political system.

Concerns over Naval Base Construction

Despite Japan engaging with Cambodia and US commitment to stand by Hun Sen government, Cambodia’s alleged proclivity towards China remains a worry. There are reports that suggest new buildings and road in Ream Naval Base in Cambodia are under construction. These facilities are reportedly being built with the intention to facilitate a Chinese military presence in Cambodia. [9] The biggest worry is that Cambodia is not fully transparent about the intent, nature, and scope of the project or the role of the PRC military, which raises concerns about intended use of the naval facility. Cambodia needs to realise that any foreign military presence at Ream would run counter to Cambodia’s constitution and undermine regional security.

While admitting that the Ream base is being built, Cambodia rejects the view that it is being built to serve the interests of China. Cambodia says that the base is not for military use by China or for any other country but a world port that any country can visit officially and that it is “for the interest of Cambodia”. Cambodia’s spokesperson Phay Siphan categorically said that the port is “not for China to use exclusively”. Siphan further said that Cambodia’s constitution does not allow foreign troops in Cambodia and therefore use of its port as a military base by a foreign is a big NO. Secondly, under ASEAN rules, member countries are debarred to host foreign troops on their lands.

While one tends to believe Cambodia’s clarification, one cannot overlook China’s long-term design and therefore Cambodia’s argument of “no strings attached” about China’s help in infrastructure building needs to be viewed critically. The reports of 2019 suggesting that China signed an agreement to have the PLA officers stationed at the naval base contradicts Cambodia’s claim. That is the worry. By infusing plenty of money in liberal terms for Cambodia’s economic development in a variety of sectors, China seems to have developed Cambodia’s dependence on China. Whether Kishida’s visit with a counter offer could offset China’s role would be successful needs to be seen. Though it would be premature to expect a dramatic turnaround in Cambodia’s approach, its policies need to be watched carefully and critically examined.

Endnotes :

[1]Ry Sochan, “Biden to work with Kingdom, develop US-ASEAN relations”, 6 February 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/biden-work-kingdom-develop-us-asean-relations
[2]Ry Sochan, “Japan PM touches down in Cambodia for two-day visit”, 21 March 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/japan-pm-touches-down-cambodia-two-day-visit
[3] Ibid
[4]Ry Sochan, “PM, Kishida talk Japan co-op, Ukraine conflict”, 22 March 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/pm-kishida-talk-japan-co-op-ukraine-conflict
[5]Long Kimmarita, “Rural Cambodia gets powered up by Japan, UNDP”, 22 March 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/rural-cambodia-gets-powered-japan-undp
[6]Nov Sivutha, “Hun Sen, Japan PM discuss potential FTA, conglomerate investment, agriculture exports”, 22 March 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/business/hun-sen-japan-pm-discuss-potential-fta-conglomerate-investment-agriculture-exports
[7]Nov Sivutha, “Japanese firms raise investor tax concerns with GDT”, 22 March 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/business/japanese-firms-raise-investor-tax-concerns-gdt
[8] “ASEAN peace gambit kicks off, with humanitarian aid”, 22 March 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/asean-peace-gambit-kicks-humanitarian-aid
[9]Lors Liblib and Hul Reaksmey, “US Says Cambodia Not Transparent About Chinese Role in Naval Base Construction”, 17 October 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2021/10/mil-211017-voa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3167%2eon0ao069c5%2e2xmc

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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