Cambodia and Japan share a long history, with diplomatic and economic ties dating back 60 years. In December, the countries’ respective prime ministers signed an agreement that upgraded the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership”. Japanese Ambassador to Cambodia Yuji Kumamaru sat down with the Post’s May Kunmakara for an exclusive interview to discuss the special relationship that has developed between the two countries.
What are your thoughts about the relationship between our two countries over the past 60 years?
After the Paris Peace Accord had been signed, Cambodia got through the stage of national reconstruction and now is at the stage of development. As you know, Japan has been actively helping and supporting Cambodia throughout this process, which has resulted in strong mutual trust and respect between each other. For example, the relationship between the two governments has been very smooth. Relations between the Japanese imperial family and the Cambodian royal family are also very close. Our countries enjoy very active dialogues at various levels, making our ties quite unique and colourful. In addition, the economic relationship has been getting more and more upgraded and elevated in recent years, with the Japanese private sector currently operating in various fields in Cambodia. I am quite certain that the relationship will continue to flourish well into the future.
Since 1992, Japan has been the biggest bilateral donor to Cambodia. Have you observed whether this assistance has been used properly in Cambodia?
I believe so. We have a system of engagement in consultation and feasibility studies with the royal government of Cambodia. Both sides have to make sure that the assistance money has been used in the proper way. And our assistance has been very comprehensive, including infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, water supply and irrigation systems; in social development, such as building schools, hospitals and demining activity; and human resources development and so on. We also support Cambodian people by providing expertise in many fields.
Infrastructure is a very important area of development. In order to achieve development, a country must have good infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, electricity supply and irrigation systems for agriculture and industry. These things are the basics for development. So, yes, we believe Cambodia has used aid from Japan very effectively and efficiently.
Cambodia has already attracted some light-industry from Japan. What should Cambodia do to attract heavy and large-scale industry?
There are a couple of things that need to be done in order to have large-scale development in the private sector.
As with many countries in history, Cambodia had suffered from internal instability and a long-lasting civil war. Foreign investors stayed away from Cambodia. But now the situation has improved, and Cambodia needs to develop basic industries to attract more sophisticated industries.
If the basic industries in Cambodia can provide enough support, foreign companies or factories could come. Compared to Thailand or Vietnam, Cambodia at the moment doesn’t have much basic industry. It will take time to develop, but it will come.
Right now, Cambodia has to import raw materials for the garment sector, and then exports its products. I think you have a friendly environment for foreign investors, and the infrastructure is a lot better than before, and the electricity supply is also improving.
The fact that Cambodia has attracted major companies like Aeon in the service sector and Minebea in the manufacturing sector is a good start. It signals to other investors that Cambodia is open for business.
I foresee that more and more companies, factories and services will come to this country in near future.
What industry or areas in Cambodia are of interest for Japanese investors?
Well, I think what they are interested in most is to invest in an industry like supply-chain factories, as the manufacturing base in neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Thailand already have a strong Japanese presence. Now, Cambodia is providing a good environment for them to come to manufacture their products here, away from traditional manufacturing places. So I think Cambodia is more likely to become a manufacturing country.
As a market, I think Japanese small- and medium-scale companies are interested in investing here. And when these companies come, it will be a positive indicator and it will show that Cambodia has a good environment for investors.
In 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Japan and also signed an MoU on defence cooperation and exchange. What has been the outcome so far?
Well, the relationship has been elevated quite a bit as the result of the visits of the two prime ministers to each other, one in Phnom Penh, one in Tokyo. Also, I think we have a good number of delegations coming in, private sector as well as government officials. The Japanese minister of economy, trade and industry, the minister for foreign affairs and the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism have visited Cambodia too.
Now, we have been providing more programs in other areas such as scholarship programs, cultural events, youth exchanges and so on. I think the exchanges between the two countries have been developing even in areas where we had nothing before.
Japan has played an important role in helping Cambodia to improve its legal system and recently lended assistance in reforming Cambodia’s election system. How is that progressing?
Well, we have just finished our study on assistance strategies in the field of electoral reform completed during the visit in Phnom Penh by a Japanese government delegation. Recently, we saw a deal between Cambodia’s two major political parties that ended a year of political deadlock. I think Cambodia is now more ready to discuss ways to conduct reform of the legal and electoral systems, and in what areas and to what extent Japan can help.
Recently, the two parties agreed to the reform the National Election Committee by allowing the participation of NGOs. Do you think there is still a need for Japan to take part?
I don’t think we can take any initiatives or correct their overview. Cambodians of the ruling party and the opposition party will have to take the lead. But Cambodia could ask for assistance and cooperation from international society and NGOs as well.
We would be glad to help Cambodia, but we haven’t decided yet what kind of assistance we could provide to Cambodia. It depends on the results of the study.
The regional security surrounding Japan is becoming quite tense. What are your thoughts on that?
The recent security issue has seen some changes because of the shift of the global balance of power. The situation, maybe, has changed because of the innovation of technology. As a whole, the recent situation in this region, as well as the northeast and southeast regions, has seen some difficult situations. But I hope security and prosperity expand in the region. I feel that there might be some conflicting claims and disputes may arise. The important thing is that the parties concerned, including Japan and other members in this region, should reach an agreement to settle any disputes through dialogue and peaceful means and also in accordance with international laws.
The rise of China has had a big influence on the world. Japan and China depend on each other, especially in the economic field. We’d like to build good relations in the political, economic, and military fields with China. Sometimes, the relationship is tense. China aims to expand its influence in the maritime area, but we have to work in accordance with the international law and common ground shared by all members in this region to successfully maintain security.
The ASEAN Economic Community will be formed by the end of 2015. Can you share your views on this?
I believe all the member states of ASEAN want to make it a strong and useful grouping. Every country needs mutual respect for each other and to help each other so that ASEAN can become a relevant region that benefits all members. Cambodia’s role in the economic integration will bring a positive benefit to the country.
What is your view about our relationship in the future?
I feel that now is a very important time for Cambodia. The country has a lot of potential for political, social and economic development. It is important for Cambodia to speed up those necessary reforms to make sure those developments continue to happen. So, we will make every effort together with the Cambodian people and government to continue to provide our assistance to support their endeavors for further development.
I think private sector cooperation has great potential in the manufacturing sector where Japanese investors can work with Cambodian businessmen. This can help development and promote our common interests.
I sincerely hope that our relationship will continue to prosper in all areas, including government, nongovernment and private sectors in the future.