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Background Brief Cambodia-Japan Strategic Partnership Carlyle A. Thayer December 17, 2013

[client name deleted] Prime Minister Hun Sen returns today from Tokyo after the ASEAN-Japan Summit and direct bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Abe that saw more aid pledged to Cambodia and relations upgraded to a 'strategic level'. This visit follows Abes trip to Cambodia in November. We are interested in what Cambodia's deepening relationship with Japan means for the China-Cambodia relationship. Would you say that Cambodia is the country in ASEAN seen as closest to China? Do you think Cambodia will receive aid from Japan and engage diplomatically but will ultimately always remain loyal to China vis-a-vis the South China Sea/East China Seas disputes? What role does Cambodia play in relations between Japan and China for premier influence over ASEAN? And will China continue to beat Japan in Cambodia simply because of how much money they are pouring in? ANSWER: In the past the answer would have Myanmar is the closest ASEAN country to China. Cambodia must now be seen at the closest ASEAN country to China for both economic and political reasons. Cambodia has gone quiet this year on the South China Sea within ASEAN. It had its greatest utility to China when it was ASEAN Chair. The momentum to negotiate a code of conduct within the framework of the declaration on conduct of parties in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus is now supported by China and ASEAN. The ASEAN majority consists of Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Myanmar as ASEAN Chair, will reflect the consensus on this issue. Laos will go with the flow. And as noted, Cambodia has ceased an active role in ASEAN on this issue. Cambodia-Japan relations are primarily economic, bolstered by a hefty dose of development assistance. Cambodia wants the aid, and Japan wants to gain influence to counteract China. Cambodia is perfectly willing to give China economic concessions and take Japanese development assistance. If Japan sets conditions then Cambodia will rankle at this pressure. The Japan-Cambodia statement of strategic partnership does, however, contain strong Japanese views on electoral reform in Cambodia.

2 China has taken the unusual step, through its media, of suggesting that Hun Sen undertake political reforms. Chinas interests are to preserve its economic presence. Cambodia cannot really leverage its relations with ASEAN for Chinese support. Cambodia served its role last year, now the stakes are higher. China is courting Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei not to mention Vietnam. It is doubtful any outside power can influence the Hun Sen/Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) regime as much as China can. But there are limits to Chinese influence. China benefits most when Cambodia anticipates what Beijing desires and acts accordingly. The US and other western countries will always be rebuffed in dealing with the CPP regime when they make demands for political and human rights reform. Essentially, the bottom line is that Cambodia would like to milk the economic relationship with China for the benefit of the Hun Sen/CPP regime. But Cambodia also needs overseas development assistance (half ita budget) and access to the US market, its largest export destination.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, Cambodia-Japan Strategic Partnership, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, December 17, 2013. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.