The Japanese quest for diplomatic influence in Indochina has often been typified by a soft, behind-the-scenes approach backed by big spending on much-needed infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, health clinics and, in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
It’s a policy, also known as Proactive Pacifism, which Tokyo has maintained for decades, earning much respect in the process. It contrasts with the recent brash, big spending, no-questions-asked policies that have emerged with Chinese expansionism, as Beijing vies with Tokyo for regional influence.
Those attitudes remained unflinching as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conducted a recent tour of Cambodia and Laos. It was as swift as it was brief.
Behind the scenes, Abe promised to keep funding the Khmer Rouge tribunal, provide expertise to the Cambodian government on electoral reform, and give more money for infrastructure development and poverty reduction in Laos and training for peacekeepers.
In return, Abe and his entourage did push for improvements on human rights – one would like to think he raised the issue of missing activist Sombath Somphone – and better governance in both countries that remain among the most corrupt on earth.
But for Japan what mattered was its dispute with China over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands and Cambodia’s divisive foreign policy agenda within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through its siding with China over territorial claims in the South China Seas.
The Chinese only began agitating for total control of the South China Sea after the Japanese ended their post World War II soft loan program to Beijing by mutual consent in the 1990s.
Beijing then caused anger and consternation across ASEAN by submitting the nine-dashed line, effectively an outline of its grandiose territorial ambitions, to the United Nations in 2009 that overlapped traditional and internationally recognized claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Abe did secure some kind of agreement that “underscored the importance of settling maritime disputes by peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law.”
One hopes Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Laotian counterpart Thongsing Thammavong were paying attention when signing off on this statement. They count the Chinese among their closest of allies and Beijing has steadfastly refused to have any of these disputes subjected to international law or the maritime courts.
It’s an important point and if Phnom Penh and Vientiane are serious they could go a long way towards placating Japanese taxpayers who are becoming increasingly vocal about their money being spent as foreign aid on countries that are notoriously corrupt and can’t say thank you.
Out of 174 countries Transparency International ranked Cambodia in 157th spot and Laos at 160 on its perceptions of corruption index in 2012, hardly a position of strength when negotiating with donors over forthcoming foreign aid packages.
However, if China can be nudged towards a territorial settlement through the courts this would be a big step in the right direction and a minor victory for commonsense and the region. It would also provide some much improved standing for Cambodia and Laos, which they both need.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.