Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida must see an opportunity. In his visits, first to India and later to Cambodia, Kishida has played the role of relationship builder and norm enforcer, asking both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to heel on both demanding an end to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and asking Cambodia to support Ukrainian sovereignty as well.
Tokyo’s diplomacy over the past week has put Cambodia, which holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN this year, center stage. And it worked. Japan’s pleas to Cambodia resulted in a joint statement condemning Russian aggression, calling for “an immediate stop of the use of force and the withdrawal of the military forces from the territory of Ukraine.”
But Ukraine, arguably, wasn’t Kishida’s biggest concern. It’s always been about China for Japan, whose aggression in the Indo-Pacific region has rattled Quad allies and regional partners. Japan and the United States have worried about the ongoing construction at Ream Naval Base at Sihanoukville. Concerns center around the construction of facilities that aid a permanent Chinese military presence in Cambodia. In 2019, Cambodia allegedly signed a secret treaty that granted the Chinese navy the use of the Ream base for as long as 30 years. The United States last year imposed sanctions on Cambodian senior military officials for supposed corruption involving Chinese companies, claiming they conspired to “inflate the cost of facilities [at Ream Naval Base] and personally benefit from the proceeds.” Washington has raised alarms about Chinese activities at Ream for many months.