Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) at the state guest house in Tokyo, August 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Toru Hannai/Pool

Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi once said that his approach as head of the 1992-93 United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) peacekeeping operation was to “combine patient persuasion with sustained pressure.”

Fast forward 25 years, Japan appears to be employing the same diplomatic approach in declining to impose sanctions or censure Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s repression of the political opposition and hard slide towards authoritarianism.

In November, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was formally dissolved by the Supreme Court for allegedly plotting to overthrow Hun Sen’s government. In September, CNRP president Kem Sokha was arrested and is still detained on “treason” charges.

But while the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have imposed sanctions and threatened further punitive measures if there is no political progress before July’s general election, Japan has so far taken a less confrontational approach.

Indeed, while Western critics assert the upcoming polls will be a sham without the CNRP’s participation, Japan continues to provide support for elections Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is assured to win. Historically, Japan has been the biggest financial backer of Cambodia’s elections, whether or not they were free and fair.

In January, Tokyo announced that it would continue funding Cambodia’s National Election Committee, a nominally independent supervisory body. Last month, Japan pledged additional funds for new ballot boxes.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen drops a ballot into a box during a Senate election in Takhmao, Kandal province, February 25, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Significantly, Japan was not among the 45 countries that signed a strongly worded joint statement on Cambodia at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this month, Hironori Suzuki, Japan’s embassy counsellor in Phnom Penh, confirmed to Asia Times.

The joint statement urged Hun Sen’s government to reinstate the CNRP and allow it to contest the upcoming polls.

Japan’s ambassador to the UN, Mitsuko Shino, issued a much milder statement, saying that Tokyo was “paying close attention” to Cambodia and that it hopes July’s election “reflects the will of the Cambodian people.” Japan’s ambassador to Cambodia, Hidehisa Horinouchi, made a similarly worded statement last month.

Japan’s comparatively soft stance is raising hackles with rights advocates, many of whom are now pressuring Western nations to more severely sanction Hun Sen’s crackdown. That’s because Japan has strong political and economic influence in Cambodia.

“Japan has gone from bad, then to worse, and now beyond outrageous in its cozying up to Hun Sen and his government and ignoring their human rights violations,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, a rights group.

“It appears the moral compass of Japanese foreign policy that claims to adhere to democracy and human rights is totally broken when it comes to Cambodia,” he added.

Cambodia’s premier Hun Sen and Japan’s Ambassador to Cambodia Hidehisa Horinouchi at an inauguration ceremony of the Tokyo-funded National Road No. 1, Phnom Penh, March 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The CNRP has also challenged Japan’s position, asking how the Cambodian people’s will can be reflected without the CNRP on the ballot considering it won 44% of the popular vote at the last election in 2013.

“Japan would have to explain to at least half of the entire Cambodian population why it is supporting an artificial election that robs the will of millions of people,” Kem Monovithya, the CNRP’s de facto spokeswoman and Kem Sokha’s daughter, told local media.

Japan’s soft line was predictable in light of its past policies and actions in Cambodia, analysts say.

They note that Japan was UNTAC’s largest financial backer, a US$2 billion peacekeeping operation that marked the first overseas deployment of Japanese troops since World War II. This year also marks 65 years of Cambodia-Japan diplomatic relations, with both nations planning a series of events to celebrate the anniversary.

“During the 1990s and early 2000s, Japan was one of the outside donors which continued to refer to Cambodian elections as ‘free and fair’ even in the face of verifiable election irregularities and intimidation of voters by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party,” says Paul Chambers, lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University.

For example, Japan helped broker political dialogue following the 1997 coup at which Hun Sen ousted co-premier Norodom Ranariddh and his Funcinpec party from a power-sharing coalition in a bloody spasm of violence.

Funcinpec won the UN-organized 1993 elections but Hun Sen ensured he was installed as co-premier through threat of violence. In the coup’s aftermath, Ranariddh was pardoned by King Sihanouk, his father, as part of the Japan-backed dialogue. He was allowed to run in the subsequent 1998 elections, which the CPP won.

Men hold Cambodian and Japanese flags during the inauguration ceremony of National Road No. 1, Phnom Penh, March 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

For its critics, Japan has long been too soft on Hun Sen’s government, content to ensure stability at the expense of democracy and rights. Its advocates, on the other hand, claim Tokyo engages in a more pragmatic diplomacy that mixes donations and negotiations in a form of “proactive pacifism.”

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected in 2012, the leader said his foreign policy would shift towards a more “proactive diplomacy,” an indication of his administration’s more hawkish approach to global affairs and self-confidence on the world stage.

Tokyo must reckon either it still has substantial leverage inside Hun Sen’s government, or hopes to build good will by staying on cordial terms with Phnom Penh while other nations are sharply criticizing it.

“Tokyo wants to play the long game, to remain as a positive partner in Cambodia’s politics and economy, in the hope that ultimately Japan can be the most trusted friend of Phnom Penh,” says Chambers.

Kentaro Sonoura, Abe’s national security advisor, visited Phnom Penh last week and reportedly suggested to Hun Sen that he open a dialogue with CNRP leaders, a recommendation welcomed by the opposition.

A CPP spokesman later rejected the possibility of dialogue, as did Hun Sen last month when former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy proposed a meeting. Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed this week that Japan’s concerns about the political situation were based on a “misunderstanding” and an anti-Cambodia “propaganda machine.”

Cambodian premier Hun Sen (L) smiles while delivering a speech as his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe (R) listens during a banquet at the state guesthouse in Tokyo, August 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura

Some analysts reckon dialogue is still possible closer to July’s election. Sam Rainsy was pardoned of a politically motivated conviction just weeks before the last general election in 2013 and allowed to return to Cambodia. Japan may be holding out hope for a repeat of that history.

A recent editorial published by Yomiuri Shimbun, a conservative Japanese newspaper, said, “Even if the [CPP] has an overwhelming victory, it cannot be seen as the administration having won the people’s confidence, which may not lead to political stability in the long run.”

CPP grandees, including Hun Sen, have been busy instructing Cambodians not to boycott the election, an indication that the ruling party is genuinely concerned about the optics of low voter turnout. Mu Sochua has opined that turnout could be as low as 40%.

Even if turnout is lower than 60% (2013’s general election had the lowest voter turnout in decades at 68.5%), it could severely damage Hun Sen’s legitimacy, analysts say. One reason why the CPP engages in regular elections is to show business and political elites that the public still recognizes him as the country’s only capable leader.

Japan may be playing a waiting game because it is more interested in what happens after July’s election than before. Tokyo is likely keen to remain in a position of influence in the event that there is post-election political instability, some analysts believe.

But Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, says Japan’s long game approach aims chiefly to compete with China. “Being in the good graces of Cambodia allows Japan to believe that not all is lost with respect to Phnom Penh,” he said.

Japan is not the only country concerned about Cambodia’s close ties to China, currently its largest benefactor and seemingly political beau ideal.

A Cambodian police official stands guard as students hold portraits of China’s President Xi Jinping and King Norodom Sihamoni during Xi’s arrival at the Phnom Penh international airport on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

When Sonoura visited Phnom Penh last week, he also discussed with Cambodian counterparts Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”, a bid to build a rules-based order in Asia with US and Australian support.

While Tokyo has denied it is intended to counter Chinese hegemony, analysts say it is a chief component of the policy. Indeed, one element of the strategy is a regional infrastructure scheme, an alternative or rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Tokyo clearly sees Southeast Asia as a linchpin of the policy, as was made clear when Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono briefly toured Singapore and Brunei last month.

“Tokyo is willing to sell Cambodian democracy and human rights down the river in order to keep up its mini Cold War-style fight with China for influence in Phnom Penh,” says HRW’s Robertson.

“By doing so, Japan is not only besmirching its own name in the eyes of the Cambodian people, but is also devaluing past Japanese aid projects that actually did do positive things for the country.”

“Tokyo is willing to sell Cambodian democracy and human rights down the river in order to keep up its mini Cold War-style fight with China for influence in Phnom Penh” – Human Rights Watch

Another explanation for Japan’s softly softly response to Hun Sen’s clampdown is financial. Japanese investment in Cambodia was worth nearly US$1.6 billion as of last year.

In 2008, Japan imported just US$32 million worth of goods from Cambodia. By the end of 2016, the figure had jumped to US$1.2 billion, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.

Speaking to Japanese investors last year, Hun Sen promised “peace, security and a stable political situation”, effectively equating business continuity with his CPP staying in power. Japanese firms invested in Cambodia no doubt hope the country’s future is safe and secure for business.

But Tokyo’s silence on the current clampdown and apparent willingness to prop sham polls could now put it on the wrong side of history, a potential shame considering the careful efforts Japan has made over the years to be on the right side.

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