Cambodian- Japanese Ties: Preserving Cambodia’s Foreign Policy Autonomy

Increased ties with Japan indicate Cambodia’s desire to diversify strategic partnerships in the region. Can Hun Sen succeed without angering Beijing?

By Oliver Ward

Cambodian Prime Minster, Hun Sen revealed during his state visit to Japan that he has his sights set on a handsome US$800 million worth of Japanese investment for a new skytrain in Phnom Penh. Despite securing investment in flood protection measures for Phnom Penh and funding for a new terminal port in Sihanoukville totalling US$244 million, negotiating a deal for the skytrain was Hun Sen’s real prize.

The proposed route would connect the international airport terminal to the city itself, in a move Hun Sen hopes would lead to an increase of foreign investment into Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. The Japanese have still not made a decision on the investment request.

Ties between the two nations have strengthened since 2013

Hun Sen’s visit to Japan in August was the third of his tenure as Prime Minister and demonstrated his commitment to expanding ties between Cambodia and Japan. Since the two nations signed a strategic partnership in 2013 trade and security cooperation has elevated.

In 2016 trade between Japan and Cambodia reached US$1.3 billion and both sides have agreed to make efforts to increase bilateral trade by a further US$2 billion in the coming years. Exports to Japan are also increasing, with exports up 4.5% in the first half of 2017 from the same period last year.

There are already more than 200 companies that make up the Japan Business Association in Cambodia (JBAC), signalling a strong appetite for Japanese investors looking to invest in Cambodia. This is exactly what Cambodia needs to transition from a labour-based economy to a skill-based economy and realise its upper- middle income vision by 2030.

Defence ties are also being strengthened. In February, three ships from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) visited Cambodia. This is also in keeping with the strategic partnership signed in 2013, which included an agreement on defence cooperation.

Abe’s plan is to build stronger ties to the region

For Japan, the closer ties to Cambodia represent part of Shinzo Abe’s strategy to stop the continued deterioration of Japanese geopolitical influence. With China becoming the dominant player in the region, Japan has seen a marked erosion of influence throughout Southeast Asia. To prevent any further erosion, Abe has signed a total of 10 strategic partnerships including partnerships with the EU and ASEAN.

The stronger defence ties between Cambodia and Japan also signal Japanese interest in taking a more prominent role in the security of ASEAN. In November 2016, Japan drew up their ASEAN Defence Initiative, which outlined Japanese plans to strengthen maritime security in the ASEAN region by increasing cooperation and support for individual nation states.

Closer Japanese ties give Cambodia more leverage

Diversifying Cambodia’s international economic and defence ties will give Cambodia more leverage within its bilateral relationship with China. Many within the country, including the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), have grown concerned by Cambodia’s economic and military reliance on Beijing. By diversifying Cambodia’s economic relationships and increasing defence cooperation with other international players, Cambodia will be able to mitigate the erosion of foreign policy autonomy caused by their reliance on Beijing. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will also be able to silence some opposition critics in the process.

China will still be Cambodia’s most significant economic and military partner and therefore Hun Sen will need to avoid angering Beijing. However, by forging more partnerships with other powers in the region, Cambodia can hedge their support and reposition themselves. Look for Hun Sen to forge stronger ties with other large players in the region like India and South Korea.

Hun Sen will need to walk a fine line. He cannot afford to upset Beijing, but cannot afford to remain entirely dependent on China either. Diversifying Cambodian strategic partnerships will test his diplomatic prowess and with the CNRP’s influence increasing, his critics will not accept failure.