Cambodia and Japan celebrated 70 years of diplomatic ties in 2023. To mark this milestone, both nations raised their relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), placing Japan at the top of Cambodia’s three-tier foreign relations hierarchy. Since 2010, this status has been restricted to China, marking a major diplomatic change in Cambodia.
Strategic Pivot Amidst US-China Geopolitical Dynamics
This major agreement launched during Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s 2022 Phnom Penh visit is more than ceremonial. Instead, it represents a deliberate rebalancing of Cambodia’s international relations to balance China’s growing influence and Western worries over its democratic trajectory. Japan’s role as Cambodia’s leverage point in the intricate US-China geopolitical conflict is now the focus.
Multiple areas of cooperation with Japan have improved. Economic engagement will increase, supporting Cambodia’s diversification policy. Tokyo uses the CSP to strengthen security in reaction to Beijing’s South China marine aggressiveness and secure crucial marine routes of communication. This cooperation may also debunk accusations of Chinese naval involvement in Cambodia.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s visit highlighted the improved partnership’s digital technology, economic, and security foundations. Japan differs from the US in Cambodia’s human rights and democratic policies. The US questioned the ‘freedom and fairness’ of Cambodia’s July 2023 general election, but Japan was the only democratic nation to recognize the government.
As China supports Cambodia, Cambodia’s governing elites like Japan’s less aggressive stance. Cambodia attempts to balance China and Japan while maintaining its independence in this complicated diplomatic dance. Japan’s economic participation has helped Cambodia’s commerce, development, and foreign direct investment, preventing China’s economic monopoly.
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Japan’s Strategic Footprint at Ream Naval Base Adds Complexity to Cambodia’s Geopolitical Landscape
Defense aid between Japan and Cambodia has increased in reaction to Beijing’s military collaboration with Southeast Asian nations. Japan’s deployment of the Maritime Self-Defense Force at Ream Naval Base indicates a deeper strategic partnership. This complicates Cambodia’s strategic situation, especially when Ream Naval Base was accused of harboring the Chinese Navy.
Cambodia often appears as a Chinese client state in the complex US-China strategic relationship. Cambodia is intentionally diversifying its international ties with Japan outside of US and Chinese influence, changing this narrative. Cambodia’s modest but crucial balancing act positions Japan as a savvy strategic diversification partner.
Cambodia’s turn toward Japan may raise fears about Chinese retribution, but Phnom Penh’s subtle diplomacy has raised China to its highest standing. Cambodia’s new Diamond Hexagon cooperation structure indirectly seeks to move China beyond a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Cambodia’s future depends on maintaining and improving strategic contact with all international counterparts to maintain a diverse foreign policy without angering big powers.
Cambodia-Japan Comprehensive Strategic Partnership goes beyond diplomatic symbolism to reflect Cambodia’s changing foreign relations. Cambodia has developed relationships with possible third parties like Japan beyond the US and China’s reach. Japan’s assertive regional diplomacy portrays it as an economic powerhouse and a viable collaboration option, protecting the rules-based global order. This alliance illustrates the tricky art of diplomatic balance in a period of rising Beijing-Washington tensions.