Japan nudges ASEAN chair Cambodia on South China Sea

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Cambodia at the weekend to lobby for regional solutions to the South China Sea disputes, potentially diluting Beijing’s influence in Phnom Penh.

This was his first bilateral foreign trip since taking office in October 2021.

Cambodia is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) and has close relationship with both Japan and China.

China claims “historical rights” to most of the sea but Chinese claims are rejected by neighboring countries including some ASEAN members. An international tribunal in 2016 also rejected the legal basis of China’s sweeping claims.

“Although Cambodia and Japan are not claimant states in the South China Sea, these two countries pay important roles in mediating the South China Sea disputes,” said Kimkong Heng, visiting senior research fellow at the Cambodia Development Center (CDC).

“This year Cambodia chairs ASEAN so the country is in a good position to be a mediator for regional issues and challenges such as the Myanmar crisis and the South China Sea issues,” Heng said.

Last week, before Kishida arrived in Phnom Penh, two Japanese naval ships spent three days at Cambodia’s southern port city of Sihanoukville and conducted a joint exercise with the Royal Cambodian Navy. The Japanese crew also visited the Ream Naval Base where the U.S. alleges that Cambodia has granted exclusive utilization access to the Chinese military to part of the base. Cambodia has repeatedly denied the allegation.

A spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh told RFA last week that Washington is still concerned about “the intended use of the naval facility.”

“The U.S. Government has long expressed concerns that the Government of Cambodia has not been fully transparent about the intent, nature, and scope of the Ream project or the role the PRC (People’s Republic of China) military is playing in its construction,” said spokesperson Stephanie Arzate.

Influencing China

A joint statement issued after Prime Minister Kishida’s visit said that the leaders of Japan and Cambodia “reaffirmed the importance of sustaining peace, security, safety, freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, as well as non-militarization and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Kishida on Tuesday tweeted that he confirmed with his counterpart “that any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force cannot be tolerated in any region of the world.”

“We were also in agreement that precisely because of this situation it is imperative that we further promote efforts to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the prime minister said, referring to the concept initiated by the U.S. and its allies.

Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Studies, International Christian University in Tokyo, said that Japan prioritizes maintaining stability and a rules-based approach to governing the South China Sea as its sea lanes are critical arteries for the Japanese economy.

Sovinda Po, a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Japan has “a broader strategic interest” in areas surrounding the South China Sea, including the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute of its own with China.

“The way in which ASEAN under Cambodia's chairmanship deals with China on the South China Sea issue will determine the way in which China will respond. There are some concerns that if ASEAN goes soft with China, then China will further expand beyond the South China Sea,” Po added.

But Nagy said that Kishida will be challenged to get Cambodia to support Japan’s position. He said Cambodia’s close partnership with China continues to be strong and Phnom Penh’s relationship with Beijing is “not easily influenced.”

During Cambodia’s last chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012, the 10-member bloc, which makes decisions by consensus, failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in its history, reportedly over Cambodian resistance to language about the South China Sea.

Tricky task

Tokyo nevertheless also has some leverage in dealing with Phnom Penh, being the latter’s long-time ally and donor. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1953.

During 1991-2017, Japan provided Cambodia with grants totalled 201.5 billion yen (US$1.68 billion), according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry. It also provided technical cooperation funds worth 86.3 billion yen (US$723 million) and a loan of 140.3 billion yen (US$1.17 billion) during the same period.

Most recently, Japan donated 1.3 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to Cambodia and provided a loan of 45 billion yen (over US$377 million) to help with the Kingdom’s fight against the pandemic.

“Cambodia would always be willing to open up relations with Japan to get developmental aid, infrastructure and connectivity and diversify its relations in the region,” Nagy at ICU said.

Analysts say Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been ruling Cambodia since 1985, will be trying to maintain a tricky balance between a good relationship with Japan and not offending China.

Heng said that for Japan it’s important to engage with Cambodia “to ensure that Japan’s strategic interests are considered in ASEAN meetings” regarding Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific.

That’s likely to be viewed with suspicion in Beijing.

Japan is also one of the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, alongside the U.S., Indian and Japan. The Quad, as it is better known, is widely seen as countering China’s weight in the region.

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