As Japan seeks good relations with Southeast Asian countries, one positive development of late is its continued aid to Cambodia. A recent news report noted that Japan is the largest donor to the Cambodian court seeking to try members of the Khmer Rouge for crimes committed during its reign. Support for the special United Nations-backed court, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, is one way that Japan can constructively contribute to the region’s development.

Japan has much to offer beyond the monetary. Its experience with democracy, the rule of law and its civil society are valuable commodities that can be exported. That knowledge can help Cambodia, in this case, facilitate the work of courts and expand the rule of law. That may be a more nebulous contribution, but in the long run, it will last longer than a new bridge or another factory.

Despite the weaknesses and problems with the legal system here in Japan, its greatest export might just be judicial.

Continued Japanese support of legal institutions could lead to rectification of past abuses as well as a firm foundation for democratic society. This is one instance where Japan understands its potential to help in the region and is offering substantive assistance. A stable, civil society with functioning legal structures is as essential to national reconstruction as roads and irrigation networks are.

One of the ironies of these donations is that Japan is now competing with China. By also contributing to Cambodia, China may be trying to atone for supporting the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Like Japan, China is certainly attempting to secure influence there. Now that China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, though, a bit of competitive funding could benefit many Southeast Asian countries. If that helps establish democratic and judicial principles, it might not be such a bad thing.

Hopefully, this contribution is a sign that Japan can work with countries like Cambodia as partners equal in rights and needs, if not in economic development. It may also be a sign that Japan’s foreign relations can be built on the basis of judicial procedures and humanitarian attitudes, not just money.

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