Ties that bind: 65 years of Japan-Cambodia diplomatic relations

Motorists travel across the 1.73-kilometre Japanese-funded Tsubasa Bridge from Kandal province to Prey Veng province after the inauguration ceremony in April 2015.
Motorists travel across the 1.73-kilometre Japanese-funded Tsubasa Bridge from Kandal province to Prey Veng province after the inauguration ceremony in April 2015. Heng Chivoan

Ties that bind: 65 years of Japan-Cambodia diplomatic relations

Relations between Japan and Cambodia have grown and flourished since the two countries first established ties in 1953.

by David Hutt

This year marks the 65th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Cambodia and Japan, and relations between the two nations continue to deepen politically, economically and culturally.

Japanese foreign direct investment was worth $822 million in 2016, making it the third-largest investor in Cambodia, and there are now an estimated 3,500 Japanese investors active in the country. In total, Japan has invested more than $1.5 billion over the last 25 years, according to figures by the Council for the Development of Cambodia.

More than 200,000 Japanese tourists visited Cambodia last year, a figure that may well rise in the coming years after the first direct flights between Tokyo and Phnom Penh were launched in 2016 by All Nippon Airways (ANA), one of Japan’s largest airlines.

Tokyo has been generous with its money, too. Japan has been the biggest donor to Cambodia since 1992, providing more than $2 billion in development assistance.

But the last 65 years of diplomatic ties haven’t always been easy going. In fact, the decade before the first diplomatic agreements were signed, Imperial Japanese forces occupied Cambodia between 1941 and 1945.

An agreement to establish diplomatic relations was reached with Japan shortly before Cambodia gained independence in 1953, but relations were severed when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.

In 1992, as personnel of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) operation took over governance, Tokyo saw an opportunity to renew its ties with Cambodia.

Japan’s support of the peace process wasn’t incidental. Much of the $2 billion tab was fronted by Tokyo, for which participation in the UN mission also marked the first time since World War II that its troops had been deployed overseas.

Control of the operation was placed in the hands of a UN veteran diplomat, Yasushi Akashi.

“My basic approach [was] to combine patient persuasion with sustained pressure,” he would later write.

In many ways this has remained Japan’s basic approach to Cambodia ever since.

Unlike Cambodia’s other major aid donors, the US and the European Union, Japan has taken a more accommodating stance on recent political events. Tokyo has voiced its opposition to the CNRP’s dissolution, but it has not spoken about imposing any sanctions on Phnom Penh, nor has it threatened to end bilateral talks.

Indeed, Japan has said it will also continue funding the Cambodia’s National Election Commission and still intends to send electoral monitors to observe July’s general election.

“Business is still booming and lack of democracy has not previously been a problem in the Japan-Cambodia relationship,” said Ear Sophal, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

“Of course,” he added, “things can change, especially if the US and Europe press Tokyo to get tough.”

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