Amid the ongoing deterioration of democracy, human rights and media freedom in Cambodia and the country’s rising diplomatic tension with the European Union, Japan still maintains its low-profile diplomacy toward Cambodia. On March 12, the Japanese government invited 10 “young politics-oriented Cambodians” to pay a week-long official visit to Japan. This was the second time, following another such visit Japan organized in December.

According to a press release by the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh, “young politics-oriented Cambodians” were invited, but they were not ordinary youths. Those who took part in the recent visit were core members of Cambodian political parties. Among the invitees were Meas Sophorn, under secretary of state of the Ministry of Information, and Vann Chantho, under secretary of state of the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, who are rising politicians in the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party.

Meng Sopheary, one of the lawyers of an opposition party leader, and Soun Chamroeun, who is among the 118 banned politicians of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, were also among the invitees. Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in late 2017. Technically, therefore, it didn’t legally exist as an opposition party in Cambodia at the time of the visit. But with the recent invitations, the Japanese government in effect recognized the CNRP as a Cambodian political party. Japan is practicing its traditional “twin-track diplomacy” toward Cambodia by engaging with both opposition and the ruling parties to advance its economic and strategic interests.

Historically, Japan’s twin-track diplomacy toward Cambodia has existed since the height of the Cold War in the 1970s. Andrea Pressello, an assistant professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, has studied a number of primary sources, including testimony from veteran Japanese diplomats and declassified documents from the Foreign Ministry. He says that Japan as a key Western ally played a critical role in countering the Soviet expansion in Southeast Asia, while actively working behind closed doors with Vietnam and Cambodia to maximize its own national interests.

After the communist takeovers of Phnom Penh and Saigon in April 1975, the priority of the United States was on isolating communist Vietnam economically, politically and diplomatically. Japan, however, had huge economic interests in Southeast Asia, as well as a strategic interest in securing maritime routes for importing oil from the Middle East at a time when U.S. commitment to the security of Southeast Asia was in doubt. Maintaining good diplomatic channels in all of Southeast Asia was Japan’s preferred foreign policy approach.

Yosuke Nakae, former director general of the Asian affairs bureau of the Foreign Ministry from 1975 to 1978, commented: “If Southeast Asia [was] influenced by other countries, for example the United States or China or the Soviet Union … we shouldn’t approve it and we had to resist such influence.” Clearly, Japan saw Southeast Asia as its sphere of influence and designed its engagement with the region accordingly. For Japan, engaging with Indochina (not isolating it) was the right companion of its policy of containing the Soviet Union.

Japan’s twin-track diplomacy toward Cambodia was in motion at the beginning of the third Indochina war after divisions of Vietnamese infantry and tanks rolled into Phnom Penh to bring down the notorious Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979. In the years 1979 to 1984, Japan kept a low profile in its support of Cambodia, avoiding overt and harsh criticism of Vietnam.

As Pressello explains, the twin-track diplomacy became more visible after Japan made three major moves in 1984: It invited Prince Norodom Sihanouk to pay a visit to Tokyo, announced bilateral talks between Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Co Thach, and introduced a three-point proposal on the “Cambodian problem.”

In 1987, Foreign Minister Tadashi Kuranari proposed four key points on which all the conflicting parties in Cambodia needed to agree: (1) complete withdrawal of all Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and guarantee of no return of the Khmer Rouge regime; (2) free and fair elections; (3) mechanisms to monitor the previous two points; and (4) a comprehensive political settlement that preserved the security of Cambodia and its neighbors.

Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita in 1989 backed the Kuranari initiative with funds, personnel and non-military material.

In 1990, Yukio Imagawa, a close friend of Sihanouk since 1957 who became the first Japanese ambassador to post-conflict Cambodia in 1991, visited Phnom Penh. He convinced Hun Sen, then the leader of the Vietnam-backed government of Cambodia, to accept Japan’s brokership at the conference in Tokyo in June 1990 that would take place with him, the FUNCINPEC of Sihanouk, the Khmer People’s Liberation Front of Son Sann and the Khmer Rouge.

At the conclusion of the conference, Hun Sen and Sihanouk signed a joint communique to establish the Supreme National Council, one of the most important political deals that led to the Paris Peace Agreement on Oct. 23, 1991, the United Nations peacekeeping mission and the election in 1993. Japan’s twin-track diplomacy that aimed to untangle the conflict in Cambodia demonstrated its diligence during the 1990s.

Japan maintains its soft diplomatic position toward Cambodia today. The relative political stability under Prime Minister Hun Sen has brought about both economic growth and a rise of a politically mindful middle class, while corruption and factional pork barreling over economic opportunities continue.

A large infusion of Chinese money with dubious origins into the Cambodian political economy under Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative intensifies both economic growth and political conflicts. The challenge Cambodia faces today is the dilemma between its growing civil society and the antiquated and undemocratic process of political deal-making among the elite. A deterioration of democracy and a decline of media freedom and human rights are the sad casualties of the current growth model.

As a key Asian democracy and a key donor to Cambodia, Japan is highly regarded by ordinary Cambodians as an honest broker that can rectify Cambodia’s problems. Japan has refrained from economic sanctions against the Cambodian government, which would only push Cambodia into a deeper embrace of China. At the same time, Japan sees the promotion of universal values of democracy, freedom and human rights in Cambodia as not only an ethical interest shared with the Europeans, but also an important ingredient of the solution to the country’s socio-economic-political quagmire.

Japan’s aid to improve Cambodia’s governance has been consistent, and its focus on human resource development bodes well with the latest trend of the international aid community. Japan’s aid to the electoral process (despite the grave concerns of election fraud) and capacity-building in the judicial sector is a stubbornly patient undertaking. Yet, Japan’s approach will more likely produce a stronger sense of local ownership of the democratic process than the on-and-off aid and loud criticism from Europe.

The visit by the so-called 10 young politics-oriented Cambodians indicates that Japan is working outside the international media limelight to engage with both the opposition and the ruling party through its traditional twin-track diplomacy. While the political symbolism of the Japanese invitation sends a subtle warning to the ruling regime, Japan also needs to take more concrete medium-term actions to underwrite the minimal openness and transparency in Cambodian politics and bring about a compromise solutions acceptable for all parties.

Sek Sophal, a writer for The Bangkok Post, is an affiliated researcher of the Democracy Promotion Center, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. Yoichiro Sato is an APU professor.

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