Returning from a state visit to Japan on Tuesday, a member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government dismissed the possibility that newly upgraded ties with Japan and Cambodia’s decision to join its Asean neighbors in a “freedom of overflight” pact with Tokyo might strain its close relations with Beijing.
During the trip, Mr. Hun Sen officially upgraded Cambodia’s relations with Japan to a “strategic partnership” and, at an Asean-Japan Commemorative Summit on Saturday, joined a communique expressing the right to a “freedom of overflight” in the region.
China is likely to interpret the communique as a challenge to the air defense identification zone it unilaterally declared over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Freshly arrived from Tokyo with Mr. Hun Sen, Kao Kim Hourn, a minister without portfolio attached to the prime minister, spoke with reporters about the trip at Phnom Penh International Airport.
Asked if Cambodia’s joining the Asean communique might offend China, the country’s biggest investor, Mr. Kim Hourn maintained that the overflight agreement merely reiterated principles in a Declaration of Conduct (DOC) that already exists among Asean states, which covers navigation in the South China Sea.
“The agreement is already stipulated in the DOC. It already states that there needs to be freedom and security for navigation,” Mr. Kim Hourn said. “What we’re doing is strengthening the connections between Asean and Asean’s country partners.”
Mr. Kim Hourn also said that the upgrade in bilateral relations with Japan was in line with Asean policy.
“Cambodia is a member of Asean, and Asean has relationships with some other countries, namely China, Japan, South Korea and India,” he said. “For Cambodia, what’s important is that it’s Asean policy, and also Japan has given us a lot of benefits,” he said.
Already Cambodia’s most generous development aid donor, Japan signed up for another $134 million in new loans to Mr. Hun Sen’s government for a trio of projects. At Saturday’s Asean-Japan summit, the Japanese government also announced plans to shower Asean member states with $20 billion in aid over the next five years.
Explaining Cambodia’s new “strategic partnership” with Japan at a time of growing rivalry with China, Mr. Kim Hourn said the upgrade meant “deeper and wider” cooperation on several fronts with Tokyo.
“This strategic partnership is more broad,” he said. “The sectors are deeper and wider, as you saw Prime Minister Hun Sen asking Japan to help with electoral reform. And there is also the military sector, which we did not have before. Now we have a memorandum on military cooperation. We are also pushing for cooperation among the police, so the cooperation is wider than before.”
Details of the memorandum on military cooperation and exchange between Cambodia and Japan were not made available.
The two countries have also agreed to start talks on establishing direct commercial flights.