Prime Minister Hun Sen returned triumphantly to the Kingdom yesterday after a visit to Japan that secured $133 million in new loans, a pledge to enhance defence cooperation and an upgrading of the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership”.
But this step towards closer cooperation with Japan should not be considered a step away from China, Cambodia’s most important ally and largest investor, experts said yesterday.
Kao Kim Huorn, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told journalists following the prime minister’s arrival that Cambodia and Japan had decided to upgrade relations to a strategic level involving cooperation in areas never seen previously, such as the military and police.
“The visit of Samdech Prime Minister has achieved a fruitful result,” he announced.
Hun Sen’s bilateral talks with Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe followed an ASEAN-Japan summit that saw Japan pledge nearly $20 billion in aid to the region, capping off a year in which the East Asian power has aggressively courted ASEAN in a bid to foster regional support amid its continuing stand-off with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
A joint statement from Japan and ASEAN on Saturday saw leaders agreeing “to enhance cooperation in ensuring freedom of overflight” – believed to be a reference to the controversial air defence zone unilaterally imposed by China last month over the East China Sea, causing friction with Japan and the US.
While some ASEAN countries may want to back Japan and take a stronger stance against China due to their own maritime disputes with the superpower in the South China Sea, Cambodia will remain firmly in the Chinese corner to continue receiving lucrative economic benefits, said Dr Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.
“Most countries in South East Asia clearly try and balance their relationship between the US and China but I don’t think that’s the case with Cambodia. Clearly China, as we saw last year [during Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship], is at the apex of their foreign relations, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.”
Nonetheless, Cambodia can and will continue to accept aid from Japan – its top development donor – without earning Chinese scorn, he continued.
“I think the Chinese are clever enough to understand the dynamics at play here and that the declaration of a strategic partnership is more political rhetoric than substance. I don’t think the Chinese would be losing any sleep over it. They know their position in Cambodia is firmly entrenched.”
Chinese grants and loans to Cambodia are generally considered “no strings attached”. If Japan tried to put tougher conditions on its development aid, Cambodia might not be as willing to play both sides, Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said.
“Cambodia wants the aid, and Japan wants to gain influence to counteract China. Cambodia is perfectly willing to give China economic concessions and take Japanese development assistance. [But] if Japan sets conditions, then Cambodia will rankle at this pressure,” he said.
Divisions within ASEAN came to a head during Cambodia’s chairmanship of the grouping last year, when the Kingdom made “unprecedented” efforts to avoid discussions of South China Sea disputes between ASEAN nations and China, said Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, lead researcher in political and security affairs at ISEAS’ ASEAN Studies Centre.
Despite ASEAN’s mild rebuke over the air defence zone in this week’s statement, Termsak said that ASEAN leaders had been quite “subdued” in supporting the new security role of Japan, even following its aggressive diplomacy and munificence over the past year.
“Each country in ASEAN has its own security policy and [interests]. [But] when they come together it is very important that ASEAN as a group will not take sides and be friendly to all,” he said.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Ernie Bower, a senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, rated Cambodia as the country least likely to confront China in the region.
“If you line up the ASEAN countries in a spectrum of their willingness to strengthen cohesion to send strong messages to China … it would look like this, ranking from most willing to least: Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia,” he said.
Since passing its ASEAN chairmanship to Brunei, Cambodia has “gone quiet” on the South China Sea disputes, Thayer said.
“[Cambodia] had its greatest utility to China when it was ASEAN chair.… China benefits most when Cambodia anticipates what it desires and acts accordingly. Cambodia served its role last year, now the stakes are higher.”
According to Japanese media, Hun Sen told Abe during bilateral meetings on Sunday that he was pleased Japan was making efforts to improve relations with China after Abe mentioned the air defence zone.
When questioned as to whether the strengthening of ties with Japan could affect Cambodia’s relationship with China, Secretary of State Kim Huon gave a diplomatic answer yesterday, saying that as ASEAN has the same level of relationship with both China and Japan, amongst other nations, the move was in line with ASEAN policy.