Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida must see an opportunity. In his visits, first to India and later to Cambodia, Kishida has played the role of relationship builder and norm enforcer, asking both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to heel on both demanding an end to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and asking Cambodia to support Ukrainian sovereignty as well.

Tokyo’s diplomacy over the past week has put Cambodia, which holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN this year, center stage. And it worked. Japan’s pleas to Cambodia resulted in a joint statement condemning Russian aggression, calling for “an immediate stop of the use of force and the withdrawal of the military forces from the territory of Ukraine.”

But Ukraine, arguably, wasn’t Kishida’s biggest concern. It’s always been about China for Japan, whose aggression in the Indo-Pacific region has rattled Quad allies and regional partners. Japan and the United States have worried about the ongoing construction at Ream Naval Base at Sihanoukville. Concerns center around the construction of facilities that aid a permanent Chinese military presence in Cambodia. In 2019, Cambodia allegedly signed a secret treaty that granted the Chinese navy the use of the Ream base for as long as 30 years. The United States last year imposed sanctions on Cambodian senior military officials for supposed corruption involving Chinese companies, claiming they conspired to “inflate the cost of facilities [at Ream Naval Base] and personally benefit from the proceeds.” Washington has raised alarms about Chinese activities at Ream for many months.

In the past, Cambodia has acted as a proxy for China within ASEAN, blocking agreements on maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and defending Beijing as a reliable regional partner. Japanese concerns, however, seem to have been heard. In a joint statement after the two-day meeting, Kishida and Hun Sen reaffirmed “the importance of sustaining peace, security, safety, freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, self-restraint, non-militarization and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” The language also urged the avoidance of action that would “increase tensions or complicate the situation in the South China Sea.” Hun Sen’s acknowledgement of UNCLOS is an area where Japan and Cambodia have differing views than Beijing. While China has scoffed at Western notions of complete freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Cambodia in 2018 joined India in seeking complete navigational rights.

It was no surprise that Kishida’s Cambodia visit followed Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) demining training with the Cambodian military at Ream. Two Japanese naval vessels, the JS Uraga and the JS Hirado were a part of a mission to Cambodia to “strengthen cooperation” between the Japanese and Cambodian navies. Part of the success of Japanese diplomacy is its consistency. Japan has been active in demining activities, donating $1.7 million recently, as well as its past cooperation with the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC). Cambodia began demining operations in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

Cambodia faces a kind of reckoning with Beijing. Chinese investments in Cambodia haven’t had the transformational effect Hun Sen wanted. Instead of giving him the luxury of domestic legitimacy, it has cooled public sentiment. While the port city of Sihanoukville has now seen its share of casinos, hotels and Chinese factories, the influx of Chinese money has not trickled down to the vast majority of Cambodians, and is instead benefiting wealthy landowners or enterprises that cater to Chinese nationals living in Cambodia. While Cambodia is important geographically to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, many have feared that the glut of cheap Chinese loans would lead to further economic leverage over Phnom Penh, furthering Xi’s economic leverage over the country.  Opposition leaders like Sam Rainsy have called Cambodia a “de facto Chinese colony.

Japan’s soft power in Cambodia is also making a difference. Tokyo remains the top bilateral donor over the past decade, distributing $720 million through international organizations like JICA and through bilateral means. Japan’s aid accounts for 25 percent of assistance to Cambodia. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan donated 1.3 million doses of vaccines as well as $428 million in aid. Japan has also funded vital infrastructure, from the construction of bridges across the Mekong River, to upgrading clean water and sewage systems in Phnom Penh.

This year, as well as that of India, marks the 70th year of Japan’s bilateral relations with Cambodia. During his visit, Kishida visited the memorial to the late police superintendent Takada Haruyuki, who died serving with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, or UNTAC in the mid-1990s. The Japanese Prime Minister also paid tribute at the royal Memorial Statue to King Norodom Sihanouk.

Japan has leverage on Cambodia, in addition to the abundance of soft power. Hun Sen wants to export more agricultural products to Japan, preferably through a free trade agreement, and for more Japanese companies to build factories in Cambodia. Cambodia’s young labor force, especially those with a higher level of education, make it an attractive place to do business. Hun Sen also has asked Japan to open the door for more Cambodian skilled workers. Cambodia’s dream of reaching middle-income country status by 2030 gives Tokyo even more power.

To improve its standing with the West however, Cambodia will have to do more internally to change hearts and minds in Tokyo and Washington. Cambodia’s human rights record is abysmal and it recently convicted several opposition figures in a sham trial, including Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua and other members of the now-defunct Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). These moves, although they shore up Hun Sen’s chances of carrying on a dominant Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) legacy, channeled directly through his son Hun Manet.

To move away from further complicated economic and political entanglements with China, Japan knows that Cambodia will have to make choices that will cause consternation with its largest investor. If growth and autonomy are indeed Hun Sen’s near-term goals, Japan will continue to ask for more—including calls for more free and fair elections.


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