By Phuong Nguyen
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe paid a two-day visit to Cambodia and Laos on November 15-17, just weeks before Japan and ASEAN plan to commemorate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties. The deliverables were expected to be less significant than those Abe achieved during recent visits to Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Cambodia and Laos are closer to China than are most of their neighbors, and Abe was expected to focus on economic assistance during the trip. Instead, he took an unconventional approach, and in both countries his confidence and energy were well-spent.
While stressing Japan’s commitment on the economic front, Abe made a strong case for his security policy of “proactive pacifism.” Abe and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen issued an unusual joint statement on bilateral maritime security cooperation, which underscored the need to settle maritime disputes by peaceful means and according to international law. This was a diplomatic victory for Abe, who has pursued a cohesive strategy with ASEAN in confronting Chinese aggression in both the South and East China Seas.
In a clear sign of stepped-up military ties, the two governments signed an agreement that would allow Japanese experts, including those from the Japan Self-Defense Forces, to provide training to Cambodian personnel for future United Nations peacekeeping operations. Last year, Japan for the first time gave $2 million in military aid for disaster relief capacity-building to Cambodia and Timor-Leste.
But Hun Sen’s agreement to the Japanese overture was unexpected. In fact, it could have been a tactic to boost his domestic legitimacy in the face of continuing opposition protests, but they were still a meaningful achievement for Abe. Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party was accused of fraud during the country’s July national elections, and in response he promised to reform the electoral system. During Abe’s trip, Hun Sen asked for Japanese expertise in doing so.
A shrewd politician who has ruled for more than 30 years, Hun Sen likely saw Abe’s visit as a way to strengthen Cambodia’s position vis-à-vis China. Hun Sen has consistently sought to balance the major powers to avoid becoming dependent. Japan is another important ballast, especially given China’s newly announced friendly neighborhood policy.
After several years of discord with ASEAN over the South China Sea disputes and economic policies perceived as exploitative, China’s leadership is seeking to mend ties via a new “charm offensive.” This was on display during President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang’s October visits to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Cambodia is eager for the benefits of this new engagement, but not at the cost of dependency.
In Laos, an important outcome of Abe’s visit was the agreement to develop a framework for the two countries’ foreign and defense officials to discuss security issues. Abe also expressed his desire to see Japanese companies play a bigger role in developing Laos’s infrastructure, while pledging more assistance to the country’s poverty reduction efforts. And like in Cambodia, Abe secured a statement recognizing the importance of settling maritime disputes through peaceful means.
Laos has long occupied a precarious geostrategic position in Asia. An often overlooked foreign policy priority in Washington, the country has for decades been the site of competition between Beijing, Hanoi, and, to a lesser extent, Bangkok. With Vietnam increasingly unable to match China’s growing political and economic footprint in Laos, Japan offers Vientiane a much-needed alternative. It is unclear why Laos supported Japan’s proposal for a security dialogue, or the extent of its seriousness, but the tiny, land-locked nation’s leaders surely saw Abe’s initiatives as an opportunity to raise their country’s regional profile and its leverage relative to their larger neighbors.
Abe has now visited all 10 ASEAN countries in the first year of his term in office—a significant achievement—and has effectively advocated Japan’s new security paradigm across the region. Most Southeast Asian nations will not take sides in the South and East China Sea disputes anytime soon. But Abe has managed to reinforce official support across the region for the primacy of the rule of law in the resolution of those disputes. This fact was not lost on China, where Abe’s most recent trip was portrayed as an attempt to “hijack countries that are not contending parties to the South China Sea issue.”
It remains to be seen whether Japan’s pivot to Southeast Asia can be sustained in the long run, but developments in Phnom Penh and Vientiane suggest that even China’s closest partners in Southeast Asia are searching for ways to achieve more autonomy and a greater voice in regional decision-making.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.