As democracies across the globe distance themselves from Cambodia’s general election, widely slammed as a sham, Japan has conspicuously gone out of its way to recognize it. Its apparent motive: win back the heart of Prime Minister Hun Sen as the Cambodian leader cozies up to China.
In the lead-up to the Sunday poll, Tokyo has contributed aid worth about ¥800 million to the National Election Committee of Cambodia, which according to the Foreign Ministry has been used for the procurement of 11,000 ballot boxes and 40 pickup trucks.
But critics and experts say Japan’s continued efforts to fund the election won’t provide much of a counterweight to China’s rising influence in Cambodia, and only risk making itself appear complicit in an electoral farce that in all likelihood will give Hun Sen — who has ruled the country for more than three decades — a renewed grip on power.
Japan’s stance puts it on par with other major Cambodia supporters such as China and Russia, but alienates it from the European Union and the U.S., both of whom terminated their support in a rebuke of Hun Sen’s intensifying repression of the opposition and media that they say all but dashes hopes of a free, fair and legitimate vote.
Japan is “concerned” about the political climate in Cambodia and has “reached out at every opportunity to demand that the situation be improved,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday. The top government spokesman defended the nation’s support as merely “technical” and designed to help “secure the credibility” of the electoral process.
In recent years, Cambodia has slid into what can now be described as an authoritarian state.
Alarmed after his Cambodian People’s Party narrowly edged the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in both a 2013 general election and last year’s local communal elections, Hun Sen has resorted to a series of maneuvers to oust opposition leaders and squelch critical media.
The CNRP was ordered to dissolve last year by the Supreme Court — which is headed by a CPP member — following what is largely seen as the politically motivated arrest of its president, Kem Sohka, over accusations of treason. The crackdown on Sohka followed a defamation charge leveled at his predecessor, Sam Rainsy, who has since committed himself to self-imposed exile to avoid imprisonment.
The government went after media, too. The Cambodian Daily, an independent English-language paper often celebrated for its critical coverage, was forced to close in September last year after failing to pay a mammoth tax bill the paper says was concocted by the government. The paper maintains an online presence, but The Phnom Penh Post reported in February that the Daily’s website had been blocked by internet service providers at the behest of the government.
In such an environment, “Japan’s election aid legitimizes the CPP’s abusive elimination of political opposition and its undemocratic conditions,” Kanae Doi, Japan director of Human Rights Watch, told The Japan Times.
“Japan’s apparent efforts to fend off China’s growing influence in the region by playing nice with Prime Minister Hun Sen, at the expense of almost half of the Cambodian people’s political will,” she said, means the nation is “contradicting” its Development Cooperation Charter, in which it says it will provide assistance to share values such as freedom and democracy.
Not ready to give up yet
In the face of criticism, Japan has opted for what it bills as “engagement” with the Hun Sen regime with which it boasts a decadeslong relationship. Upon meeting Hun Sen in April, Foreign Minister Taro Kono called on him to make sure Sunday’s poll “will duly reflect the will of the Cambodian people.”
But despite the continued absence of the only credible opposition party, a foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Japan Times last week that Tokyo believes it “shouldn’t give up just yet” on its engagement approach and that “it’s still possible” that Sunday’s election can be free and fair.
Japan, however, did refrain from dispatching an official team of observers to monitor the election, setting itself apart from China and Russia, both of which have said they will. Sending election monitors is a gesture largely regarded as tantamount to legitimizing an electoral process.
Tokyo may have been worried that “if it sent an official team of observers, it would find itself under pressure to reveal their assessment of the poll,” said Naomi Hatsukano, a researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies, a research body of the Japan External Trade Organization.
“Questioning its fairness would damage relations with the Cambodian government, but outright endorsing it would be difficult, too … So by not sending monitors, I think Japan wants to retain” a measure of ambiguity on what it thought of the election, Ha-tsukano said.
China’s growing influence
The prevailing view is that Japan’s aid for Sunday’s election is motivated, at least partially, by its desire to curb China’s ever-growing influence in the Southeast Asian country. Tokyo has long been one of the top donors toward Cambodia’s development but today its presence is dwarfed by that of its regional rival.
China was Cambodia’s biggest foreign investor from 2013 to 2017, doling out investment capital of $5.3 billion over that time frame, according to The Phnom Penh Post. Japan, meanwhile, ranked as the sixth-largest foreign investor in 2015, according to Foreign Ministry data.
“The Foreign Ministry is worried that if Japan discontinues its election aid, Cambodia will further drift toward China … But if Japan is serious about reining in China’s presence, then the amount of its current election aid is far from enough to achieve that goal anyway,” said Yukiko Yonekura, an associate professor of Southeast Asia studies at Showa Women’s University.
Yonekura’s view is echoed by Kentaro Genma, an opposition Diet member and former Cambodia researcher.
“Japan’s continued assistance for the election will not be able to stop the Hun Sen regime’s increasing reliance on China, or bring its attention back to Japan,” the Democratic Party for the People lawmaker said.
In fact, such is Hun Sen’s confidence in China’s burgeoning support — which dovetails with President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative — that he has publicly boasted, according to local media, that any gaps left by the retreat of Western donors will be filled by Beijing.
“Cambodia still likes Japan and remains pro-Japan, seeing it as a longtime friend. But it’s China that matters more in terms of Cambodia’s national strategy,” Genma said.
Tokyo’s election support, therefore, won’t pay off diplomatically and will only do Japan a disservice by sending a message to the international community that it is “backing up an increasingly heavy-handed Cambodian leadership verging on dictatorship,” the lawmaker said.
But there may be another motive at play behind Tokyo’s steadfast backing of the Cambodian election — namely its deep emotional attachment to the fledgling democracy.
The pivotal role Tokyo played in helping orchestrate Cambodia’s historic free vote in 1993 after years of instability symbolized postwar Japan’s first major involvement in an international peace effort in Asia.
Spearheaded by Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi, who headed the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, the process saw the Self-Defense Forces participate in a U.N. peacekeeping mission for the first time. The mission came at a deadly price for Japan, costing a civilian police officer and a U.N. volunteer their lives.
“There are other countries that democratized after the end of the Cold War, but Cambodia is a country Japan has long taken exceptional care of,” Yonekura of Showa Women’s University said. “Japan can’t walk out on it easily.”
It is for this reason that Mitsuru Yamada, a professor of international relations and Southeast Asian politics at Waseda University, says he finds nothing outrageous about Japan’s decision to help finance Sunday’s general election.
Cutting off aid on the coattails of the EU and U.S., he said, would have “called into question the consistency of Japan’s Cambodia diplomacy and undercut the credibility of what it has done so far,” Yamada said.
“It’s only when Japan proves itself to be diplomatically consistent that its words carry true weight … Whether Japan can use that consistency to its advantage and make bold criticisms of Cambodia’s internal politics after the election is the challenge facing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” he said.