Cambodia Upgrades Diplomatic Relations With Japan

Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to upgrade Cambodia’s diplomatic relations with Japan to a “strategic level” during talks in Tokyo on Sunday, but also thanked his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, for making efforts to mend relations with neighbor China, according to media reports.

During a state visit to Japan that ends today, Mr. Hun Sen also accepted $134 million in new loans for three infrastructure projects from Japan, Cambodia’s largest development aid donor.

State news agency Agence Kampuchea Presse (AKP) described Cambodia and Japan’s decision to move their relationship to a “strategic level” as an upgrade, but did not explain what that might mean or how it would change the current relations between the two countries.

The bilateral meeting between Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Abe followed a one-day Asean-Japan Commemorative Summit at which Japan and the 10-member Asean bloc agreed to ensure “freedom of overflight” in the region, a move China is likely to take as a rebuke to the air defense identification zone it has unilaterally imposed over disputed waters between it and Japan.

According to AKP, Mr. Abe also said he hoped that direct flights between Japan and Cambodia would be established soon and that Japanese electoral experts would be sent shortly to help reform Cambodia’s much-criticized electoral system.

Also according to AKP, the projects Japan signed up to pay for on Sunday included improvements to National Road 1 and Preah Sihanouk province’s referral hospital, as well as equipment to restore the western causeway at Angkor Wat. Japanese media reported that the development projects agreed to would include work on Cambodia’s power grid, irrigation facilities and a highway linking Phnom Penh with Thailand.

Cambodian Defense Ministry Secretary of State Neang Phat was also on hand in Tokyo to sign an agreement on defense cooperation with his Japanese counterpart, though details on that deal were not available.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment Monday on whether closer ties with Japan or the “freedom of overflight” agreement might strain relations between Phnom Penh and Beijing, the country’s largest investor, and referred the question to Mr. Hun Sen’s Cabinet.

Japan’s hosting of the Asean commemorative summit, where it pledged nearly $20 billion in aid for bloc members over the next five years, and Mr. Abe’s recent tour of Asean countries, are widely seen as an effort by Tokyo to shore up regional support and counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region.

According to The Wall Street Journal, however, Mr. Hun Sen, who has forged especially close ties with Beijing making Cambodia its closest ally in Asean, told Mr. Abe on Sunday that he was pleased the Japanese prime minister was trying to improve relations with China.

But the trip to Tokyo was not all work for Mr. Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany.

According to the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction unit, staff at the Japanese firm Minebea, which makes engines in Cambodia, feted Ms. Rany with cake and music on Thursday on the occasion of her 60th birthday. A photo on the press unit’s website shows Ms. Rany blowing out candles on the cake, surrounded by Japanese musicians.

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