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History of Japanese cooperation in Cambodia beyond realist and idealist approaches

Since 1991, Japanese aid offered to Cambodia has been the most significant in the context of the donor community, contributing to Cambodian conflict resolution, material reconstruction of infrastructures, national reconciliation and democratisation. The Realist school of international relations sustains that cooperation is an instrument of soft power, used by Japan to contain China’s assertiveness in Southeast Asia while the Liberal school affirms that Japanese cooperation aims to create «comprehensive regional security» where the basic idea is founded on economic development as a precondition of human development.

This article aims to argue that through Official Development Assistance (ODA) Japan wants to reach multiple objectives. Apart from the strengthening of soft power, mutual confidence and trust based on «heart-to-heart» dating back to Fukuda doctrine (1977) in Southeast Asia, Japan aims to create a fertile environment in Cambodia to replicate its economic development model, functional to the Japanese production chain.

1. Introduction

Having the opportunity to travel through Cambodia, one could probably use banknotes of 500 Riel, a small cut frequently used for purchases of little value. The more curious will be surprised to find there reproduced an image of the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge, built by the Japanese in 1963, and reconstructed again by the Japanese in 1994, after its destruction by the Khmer Rouge.[1] For its futuristic shape and technologies used, the bridge has become a tourist attraction as well as a critical link which connects the east and west of the country. In October 2017, the Tokyo government started a US$ 33 million renovation project of this bridge, a sign that from a political point of view, the bridge has embodied the emblem of Japanese cooperation in Cambodian or, in other words, the image of Japanese soft power in Cambodia and in Southeast Asia. It is curious to note that the reparation works were announced in the very moment when Cambodia was hit by serious political events: the Cambodian government arrested the leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition party and later the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve it. The official reason was that CNRP had fomented a foreign-backed «revolution».[2]

This anecdote introduces the theme of this article, namely, the role of Japan’s international cooperation in Cambodia, analysed in a period between the end of the Cold War and contemporaneity. The analysis aims to further study the effects that Japanese cooperation had both in Japan and in Cambodia, at local and regional levels.

Since the mid-1990s and up to 2007, Japanese aid offered to Cambodia was the most significant in the context of the donor community, contributing to conflict resolution, material reconstruction of infrastructures, national reconciliation and democratisation.[3] Just over the past ten years (2006-2016), US$ 720 million (US$ 170 million through international organizations and US$ 550 million on a bilateral basis) was provided to Cambodia by the Tokyo government.[4] From the point of view of Cambodian economic policy, cooperation with Japan favoured the adoption of a neo-liberal model, stimulating a surge of capital inflows and supporting an export-oriented production system of textile, clothing and footwear. While on the one hand this system has contributed to the economic growth of the country, on the other, it has given rise to serious criticality such as social exclusion, economic gap between social classes, gender divide, wild urbanization, abandonment of the countryside, violent land eviction, and fragmentation of the working class. Faced with these difficulties, the measures adopted by the Cambodian government have sought, firstly, to secure (foreign) investors and their capital and, secondly, ensure government stability. Violent repression of any form of dissent and the continued violation of human rights have, in fact, eroded the democratic principles constructed with great effort since the early 1990s.[5]

Despite a progressive authoritarian drift of the Cambodian government, Tokyo has never suspended its cooperation program with Phnom Penh nor has it requested or imposed any conditionalities on respect of human rights or enduring democracy. On the contrary, it has continued its cooperation projects with Cambodia, paradoxically strengthening the political legitimacy of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Based on this premise, this article aims to argue that through Official Development Assistance (ODA) Japan wants to create a fertile environment in Cambodia to replicate its economic development model, functional to the Japanese production chain.

Through a long-term analysis of the economic history of Japanese cooperation in Cambodia, based on primary sources coming from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, and secondary sources, we will proceed, firstly, by grading the historiographical debate linked to the role of international cooperation of Japan, secondly, the reconstruction of transfer of development model from the US to Japan and, finally to Southeast Asian Countries, which will be the fundament of our thesis. Subsequently, the argument of the thesis will be analysed examining cooperation between Japan and Cambodia since 1991, in the last section.

2. Grading historiographical debate linked to the role of international cooperation of Japan

Since the late 1970s, Japan has consolidated its relationship with Southeast Asian countries, basing its diplomacy on the Fukuda doctrine.[6] After the Cold War, Japanese ODA was extended to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, aiming to support rebuilding infrastructures. Since 1991, ODA in Cambodia has increased and the Japanese government never suspended its cooperation program or threatened to limit aid even when the Phnom Penh government used violence to crack down on political opponents, press freedom or worker protests. On the contrary, since 2008, Japanese ODA in Cambodia has increased further, notwithstanding the fact that in 2010 Japan announced its desire to exit from the system of aiding poor countries.[7]

Most analysts have tried to explain this attitude of Japan with two arguments stemming from two major, different theoretical approaches. The first argument proposed by the realist school considers Japanese ODA as a soft power used to contain China’s assertiveness in South East Asia, to strengthen cooperation with Cambodia and ASEAN countries and to bridge the perception gap on US commitment to Asia.[8] From this point of view, in fact, through a substantial aid and investment plan, exceeding those coming from the entire community of donors, since 2008, China has exercised a decisive influence over the foreign policy of many countries of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia.

According to the realist school, Japan’s role in the international arena is considered equal to the major powers. Starting from the end of the Cold War, but particularly after 2001, the Tokyo government accomplished an impressive journey aimed at the quest of greater power in the international arena. This approach was required to overcome the incongruity of its accustomed image of «economic giant and political dwarf». From this point of view, according to the realists, international cooperation was instrumental in making Japan a great regional and international power and the peace-keeping intervention in Cambodia, guided by Japan in 1991, was considered as a testing laboratory of new engagement doctrines.[9] Other scholars state that Japan uses ODA as a soft power not just directly on recipients through delivery but also indirectly through influencing emerging donors in East Asia, such as China, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.[10]

The second argument, proposed by the liberal school, is based on the long term Japanese project to create «comprehensive regional security» where the basic idea is founded on economic development as a precondition of human development.[11] In this way, Japan intended to reinforce the idea that economic development can be realized through a dirigiste state, legitimizing the «Development State model» and rejecting neo-liberal orthodoxy.[12]

Lastly, according to other analysts, Japan should be considered as a «middle power» because of its active role in the international arena through the promotion of human security, to compensate for its inability to act militarily in the context of military security.[13]

Actually, as Beeson suggested, the idea of comprehensive regional security needs some clarification. While from the point of view of national security or regional security, aimed at containing China, it can offer plausible explanations, from the point of view of human security it completely ignores the problems of «sequencing». In other words, if one analyses cooperation between Cambodia and Japan only from the point of view of dynamically engaging/containing China in Asia, political analysis of the social and political consequences deriving from the development model induced by donors appears to be neglected.[14] The violent social conflicts, repression of any form of dissent and the exploitation of the working class are in clear contradiction with the «human security» pursued by Japan in Cambodia. The development state model that was to have been induced by the Japanese in Cambodia does not differ from a neo-liberal model, non-inclusive, unfair and unequal, in which welfare, education and healthcare are progressively dismissed by the state. On the basis of these elements, through this analysis, we aim to argue that the cooperation of Japan in Cambodia is intended essentially to create a fertile ground for Japanese investments in Cambodia and to maintain a condition of political stability within the Japanese production chain in South East Asia.

3. Japanese «economic diplomacy» in Southeast Asia and critics on the Development Model

After the Second World War, with US economic and financial support, the Japanese government started a process of reconstruction and economic recovery which on the one hand privileged exports of high added value products and, on the other hand, favoured the accumulation of US dollar reserves.[15] This latter fact allowed Japan to keep the value of its currency low and, consequently, benefit from two advantages. The first was the continuous outlet for its hi-tech products characterized by increasing quality, and the second was the purchase of US agricultural products.[16]

Starting from the 1970s, the Japanese development model was applied to Eastern and Southeast Asian states. There, «thanks to systematic state intervention and forms of capitalism highly organised», «the potential advantages of coming late especially by combining ever increasing technological sophistication with relatively cheap labour and orienting production to exports for the world market»[17] were realized.

The industrialization process triggered by these new emerging economies – South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and, later, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia – was based on Japanese economic strategies, also from the point of view of the «unending purchases of dollar assets with the goal of keeping the value of their currencies down, the competitiveness of their manufacturing up, and the borrowing and the purchasing power of US consumers increasing made for a rising supply of subsidized loans».[18]

The replica of the Japanese development model to other countries is often effectively explained through the so-called «Flying Geese Paradigm», based on the image of geese in flight forming the letter «V». The vertex of the «V» is Japan and the following geese represent the other Asian countries. In political-economic terms, this means that the development process is characterized by a relocation of labour-intensive sectors to the poorest countries, while the richest ones specialize in new products.[19]

As the United States had done with Japan after the Second World War, and Japan itself, starting from the 1970s, with Southeast Asian countries, the US sustained the emerging Asian economies for two main reasons. The first was of a strategic nature, aimed to encourage the growth of capitalist economies in a context where satellites of the communist block gravitated. The second was of an economic nature, as it favoured the consolidation of the US dollar as a reference and international exchange currency.[20]

However, while this process allowed the US to increase the political hegemony in the Asian region, its negative consequences cannot be overlooked. The competitive mechanism triggered by the US determined the need to reduce production costs to push American companies toward the so-called «trap of profits», i.e. that stage of capitalism in which profits are so low that it is no longer convenient to invest. This phenomenon arose in the US in 1973 and resulted in two main consequences: first, it determined the need to find new geographies where higher profits were guaranteed, which means relocation of production to poor countries, where labour costs are lower. Second, it pushed investors to reduce wages and increase the productivity of workers. Briefly, these were the fundaments of neoliberal ideology that was developing in that very period.[21]

In the 1970s, Southeast Asian countries offered a way to escape from the Western and Japanese multinationals’ trap of profits and thus, first Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea and then Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines began to create the necessary infrastructure to host the manufacturing production of foreign countries. Low labour costs, weakness of trade unions, rules protecting ownership rights, free transport and equipment infrastructures and adequate logistics were the characteristics that enabled the region to base its economy on the export-led model.

Starting from the 1990s, the developmental state model based on the active role of the state to «govern the market» was also implemented in Cambodia and Vietnam and, later, Laos and Myanmar. On the one hand, it had the advantage of contributing to the rise of per capita income of the Asian countries, but on the other it had several negative consequences: wild urbanization and environmental destruction, drainage of human resources from the countryside to the cities, reduction of areas intended for intensive agriculture, division of labour where the welfare system was still non-existent or at the embryonic state, and restriction of workers’ rights.[22] After the economic crisis of 1997-2000, which struck the Southeast Asian countries particularly hard, these critical issues worsened. This was a sign that the development state model, which became a myth just because it was the only alternative to the neo classic model based on the free market, should be dispelled.[23] In fact, this development paradigm reduces the state-society relations to state-capital relations and, consequently, to a mere government and business relationship.[24] In the final instance, the state guarantees the bourgeoisie-capitalist class and, consequently, the working class is subordinated.

4. How this development state model (neoliberal) was exported to Cambodia

4.1. Starting bilateral relations between Japan and Cambodia after the Second World War

Relationships between Cambodia and Japan started in the early 1950s and were fruitful for both, for several reasons. First, after the Second World War, the US gave Japan the role of a pivotal anti-communist strong-hold in East Asia, facing the imminent victory of Communist China and the majority of the left-forces in Japan. Consequently, Japanese domestic and external policy was rigidly imposed by the US, as in the San Francisco Treaty in 1951, establishing inter alia (art. 14) the payment of war damage repairs to all countries that had undergone Japanese occupation.[25]

Second, in the same period, also Cambodia was in a situation of great political fragility. Just a few days after the invasion of Indochina by Japan on 9 March 1945 and the arrest of the French officials, King Norodom Sihanouk proclaimed Cambodian independence. However, after the Japanese surrender, the French General Leclerc imposed a soft colonial regime restoration.

From 1949 to 1953, following the capitulation of Japan, Cambodia had to renegotiate its independence with France, in a context characterized by many critical points: strong rivalry between the political forces, in particular between conservative and left parties. The Communist Party, Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), was created in June 1951 and soon after started to collaborate with the Indo-Chinese Communist Party, who, having an acting role in Vietnam, threatened the monarchy and its prerogatives.[26] In the international arena, France did not intend to lose its colonies and, in the face of a Communist victory in China and the invasion of Korea, began to involve the US in its project to maintain control over the colonies. For these reasons, Sihanouk sought support also abroad, denouncing the intransigence of France during his travels in the US, Canada and Japan.[27]

In October 1953, France granted independence to Cambodia and in July 1954 independence was internationally recognised by the Geneva Conference on Indochina. King Norodom Sihanouk started to govern his country as a «benign dictatorship».[28] In the same year, relations with Japan were renewed, favoured by the fact that the Japanese invasion, in fact, did not create great destruction in Cambodia and did not provoke huge resentment among Cambodian people, to such an extent that the Legation of Japan was established in 1954. In March 1955, Sihanouk abdicated leaving the throne to his father and, a few month later (December 1955), he went to Japan on an official visit as prime minister. Sitting next to Emperor Hirohito, Sihanouk signed a friendship treaty with Japan renouncing to sue for war damages. In exchange, Japan offered Cambodia 100 million Yen.[29]

During the conflict between the US and Vietnam, Japan maintained an ambiguous attitude towards both Vietnam and Cambodia. In the 1970s, in fact, Tokyo diplomacy began a new course of foreign policy in Asia and in South East Asia. This was partly due to the fact that the US had lost influence in the Southeast Asian countries during the Vietnam war, and partly because of the normalisation of US-China relations at the beginning of 1970. In this context, in Tokyo there was a strengthening of the idea that Japan could and should play a proactive role in Asia, independently of the US, especially with respect to Southeast Asian countries.[30]

Anti-communist ideology became less important, particularly after the announcement of the 1972 Sino-US Shanghai Communiqué that thawed US-China relations. In that period, Japan started a «omni directional diplomacy» (Zenhoi gaiko) or «multidirectional peace diplomacy» (zenhoi heiwa gaiko) aimed at improving the relationship with communist Indochina and achieving neo-mercantilist goals.[31] Indeed, Japan officially supported the US position but, at the same time, maintained open commercial channels with both North and South Vietnam, trying to take advantage of any opportunity to continue business. In this perspective, also relations with Cambodia followed the same footprint but were interrupted in 1975, after the Khmer Rouge coup. During the Khmer Rouge rule, the relationship was neither active nor proactive.[32]

Only after the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in 1979, aimed at putting an end to the Pol Pot regime, did Japan align with the US and the Atlantic block. Indeed, it condemned the Vietnamese invasion, freezing aid to Vietnam to put pressure on Hanoi to abandon their Cambodian adventure.[33] Moreover, at each of the four General Assembly meetings, Japan voted to allow representatives of the ousted Pol Pot regime to retain the Cambodian seat.[34] Nonetheless, as Wolf Mendl pointed out «It did not work, but served as Japan’s contribution to the Western stand and as a symbol of its solidarity with ASEAN. It was also intended to persuade the Vietnamese not to rely too much on Soviet support – an objective in line with the general policy of containing Soviet influence in the region».[35] However, from 1987, cooperation between Japan and Vietnam restarted with a series of projects and a rescheduling of Vietnamese debts by Japanese banks.

Between 1989 and 1994, a series of events led to the end of the Cold War in Southeast Asia, such as the withdrawal of Vietnam from Cambodia and the Peace Agreement of Hat Yai in 1989, that marked the end of the Communist insurgency in Malaysia (1968-89).[36] Consequently, also China, the US and Japan changed their relations in respect to Southeast Asian countries, in an attempt to redesign a new regional order. In particular, with the end of bipolarity, Japanese international relations were oriented toward a multilateral approach, putting an end to the US «hub and spoke».[37]

It was in this context that Japan and Cambodia renewed their relations soon after the signing of the Paris peace agreement in October 1991 by all four Cambodian factions.[38] This agreement paved the way for an international peace-keeping/building mission carried out by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and guided by Japan. For the first time after the end of the Second World War, Japan led an international mission abroad, headed by the Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi, and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were displayed abroad. Japan, in early 1991, also proposed a special commission of inquiry into the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, but the US blocked the initiative.[39]

Despite a series of criticalities, UNTAC was able to support the pacification of Cambodia, to start the process of reconciliation and, within a few years, to hold free elections.

These positive results allowed Japan to strengthen relationships and consequently to replicate its economic diplomacy, which had been brought forward in Southeast Asia in the previous 20 years, in Cambodia.

4.2. Japan-Cambodia Cooperation since 1991

After the UNTAC intervention in 1991, reconciliation and reconstruction proceeded quickly thanks to a series of international aid that arrived, partly directly to the NGOS involved in the territory and partly to the Cambodian government. In the latter case, the government used the aid for the realization of projects that had been approved ex ante by the donor community.

Until 2008, donations, grants and loans came to Cambodia essentially from bilateral donors, in particular Western countries plus Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and from multilateral donors, such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Any grant or donation was given with strings-attached conditionalities aimed at strengthening the reconciliation and democratisation process.

These conditionalities were felt even more urgent considering that after the royalist political party FUNCINPEC won the UNTAC-organized elections in May 1993, the coalition formula with Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen as co-Prime Ministers, imposed by the international community and then Prince Norodom Sihanouk, ignited conflicts. The conflict between FUNCINPEC and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led to an escalation of instability, till the coup of 1997.[40]

What happened during this coup has still not been clarified in detail. In Phnom Penh, during a rally in the capital, there was an attack on one of the leaders of the FUNCINPEC party, with the launch of two grenades that caused the death of 20 people and 150 injured. Responsibility has never been established and the reaction of the donor communities was very cold. A freeze on the promised aid was initially announced, but within a few months, cooperation projects resumed their natural course.

The World Bank announced the suspension of aid and the IMF withdrew its representative. ASEAN hid behind the non-interference principle but, as pointed out by Lee Jones, it deeply conditioned the instauration of the Hun Sen regime.[41] Indeed, it is worth noting that during that period, capital-starved Cambodia depended strongly on ASEAN investments (Singapore invested US$ 35 million, Thailand US$ 47, and Malaysia more than US$109 m).[42] Obviously, these figures considered, ASEAN had a basic interest in safeguarding these investments by encouraging stability[43]. This interest appears even more urgent after US reaction.

The US government condemned the attack but never considered it as a coup, confirming humanitarian aid (US$ 20 million) but suspending non-humanitarian help. But only a month after the coup, as Hun Sen was consolidating his control over the Cambodian government, Washington granted Cambodia the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) status.[44] This is not a trade agreement, but rather a benefit offered to less economically developed countries to allow them to increase economic growth and diversify their trade with the US. Indeed, GSP status eliminates tariffs for roughly 1,800 raw materials and manufactured goods for some 140 countries and territories, but at the same time, it establishes some conditionalities. These include recognising workers’ rights, implementing commitments to eliminate the worst forms of child labour and effectively protecting intellectual property rights.

Having this status granted led to two main results for Cambodia: first, an improvement of bilateral Cambodia-US trade and, second, a shift of investments from other ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Thailand, that only have the «Most Favored Nation» (MFN) status. Comparatively, GSP recipients have greater trade advantages than countries which only have tariff reduced status offered by MFN. This is the reason why investors shifted their production to Cambodia.

In the light of the above, despite being accused of acting behind the coup, the donors’ community negotiated with Hun Sen, obtaining an agreement that the elections planned for 1998 would take place in a peaceful and fair manner.

After the coup of 1997, Japan did not move any protests and it is worth noting that it never protested or condemned authoritarian actions regarding Cambodia or other Southeast Asian countries.[45] Even in those cases of denounced limitations and abuses against press freedom and workers’ rights, the response of Japan was always cold and, in the end, legitimized the ascent and strengthening of Hun Sen.

Since 2000, Japanese ODA to Cambodia has never been interrupted and has been directed mainly to the strengthening of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and pipelines. During this period, following the basic philosophy of its «ODA Charter», the principle of human security has always been the strategic flagship of the Japanese government.[46] The Tokyo Government has always preferred an approach of positive linkage rather than a negative one. In fact, the results of the cooperation necessarily not only led to economic development but also to a democratization of society. Japanese ODA to the military regime of Myanmar, for example, has never been suspended and the strengthening of the democratisation process of Myanmar has been considered by Japan as a successful example in applying its theory. As it did in Myanmar, in Cambodia too Japan refrained from proposing any negative linkage, suspending aid or imposing sanctions, even when violence ignited political life and social conflicts. In the history of Japanese cooperation, there had only been one case of negative linkage in Japan’s aid: aid was suspended following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

However, alongside ODA, Japan has always established a diplomatic economic policy, proposing liberalisation policies to Cambodia aimed at favouring Japanese investment.

In 2005, for example, the Japanese Parliament approved US$18.5 million (in addition to US$3m already approved under its 2004 budget) for UN-backed trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia.[47] Also, a few years later, in 2008, the agreement between the two countries for the Liberalization, Promotion and Protection of Investment entered into force,[48] coupling the Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Partnership between Japan and Member States of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Japan-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement).[49]

On the basis of this dual-track approach (ODA and Economic Diplomacy), in 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Hun Sen met in Tokyo and upgraded diplomatic relations to a «strategic partnership»[50]. During this meeting, Japan agreed to again provide Cambodia with a total of US$ 17 million of ODA loans for three projects (strengthening connectivity such as the Southern Economic Corridor, transport in metropolitan areas, renovation/improvement of irrigation and sewage systems). Abe Shinzo confined himself to expressing «his expectation that the political situation in Cambodia would be normalized in a timely fashion through dialogue and reconciliation».[51]

Since then, the number of Japanese companies investing in Cambodia has rapidly increased. According to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO web), there were only 19 Japanese companies in Cambodia in 2010. By 2015, since the JETRO web established an office in Phnom Penh, the number jumped to 1500, making Japan the third largest foreign investor in the country.

However, in 2016-2017, the political situation in Cambodia worsened further. In July 2016, the activist, physician, and political commentator and prominent critic of the government, Kem Ley was shot dead in the capital Phnom Penh. In June 2015, he had founded his own political party, the Grassroots Democracy Party, and was preparing for the 2018 elections. Moreover, in autumn 2017, members of the main opposition party, Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), were arrested or forced to seek refuge abroad with the accusation of subversive acts and, finally, on 16 November, the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the CNRP.[52]

Even in this case, the reaction of the Western Donors and of Japan was very weak. The US, for example, confined itself to a press statement, announcing that «the US is taking concrete steps to respond to the Cambodian government’s actions that have undermined the country’s progress in advancing democracy and respect for human rights».[53] Japan’s Foreign Minister joined the EU in voicing alarm over the dissolution of the CNRP to Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn,[54] but a few of months later, in February 2018, Abe’s government granted about US$ 7.5 million in aid to the Cambodian National Election Committee for the elections scheduled on 29 July 2018.[55]


In 2017, Japan and Cambodia celebrated 65 years of friendly bilateral relations with a series of cultural events, and relations between the two countries still deepen. If we exclude the period of the Khmer Rouge, when relations were interrupted, during this long path Japan has always been at the side of Cambodia. Japanese aid has contributed to the reconstruction of the country and to the growth of the material condition of the population. The ODA Chart of Japan has essentially sought to realize economic development as a precondition of improving human security. However, although Cambodia has made huge progress in increasing its GDP, the unequal distribution of wealth has generated class struggles which are often violently repressed by the government. Actually, in the last twenty years, the democratisation process in Cambodia seems to have been in decline. Trying to face these criticalities, the Tokyo government has always preferred a positive linkage approach to a negative one and has never suspended aid to Cambodia. The appeasement attitude of Japan in respect to authoritarian Southeast Asia governments has contributed to creating a fertile environment to relocate their businesses to, exploiting low costs of production. Cambodia, together with the poorest countries of the Indochinese Peninsula, is only one of the countries Japan has exported a development state model to, considered by the mainstream as a successful model. Finally, this model is characterised by deregulation and liberalisation that has ensured high profits of invested capital, but which does not guarantee labour. If one considers the criticality that this model has provoked in Cambodia, it can be argued that the cooperation of Japan in Cambodia has helped to consolidate an unfair and unequal production system. Cambodian authoritarianism is actually the product of a neoliberal economic model exported from Japan along with cooperation.



[1] Funded by a grant from the Japanese government through Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), this bridge is expected to be completed by the end of 2019. ‘Japan funding renovation of iconic Chroy Changvar Bridge’, Phnom Penh Post, 19 February 2018.

[2] ‘Developing: CNRP leader Kem Sokha arrested for «treason»’, The Phnom Penh Post, 3 September 2017; ‘Cambodia top court dissolves main opposition CNRP party’, BBC News, 16 November 2017. For a deep analysis of this facts see Nicola Mocci, ‘Cambodia 2016-2017: the worsening of social and political conflicts’, Asia Maior 2017, pp. 117-129.

[3] As declared by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: « [from 1997 to 2007] (on a net disbursement basis) US$ 720 million (US$ 170 million through international organizations and US$ 550 million on a bilateral basis)». Embassy of Japan in Cambodia, ‘Japan’s Assistance Policy for Cambodia’, ( During the 1990s, Japan also continued as a major donor in spite of the domestic economic slowdown. For example, in 1998 Japan’s total ODA was still US$ 10,731 billion, approximately. In 1999, according to OECD statistics, the aid flow from Japan increased to US$ 15.32 billion – an increase of 44 %. At 1998 constant prices, this amounted to US$ 13.45 billion – still an increase of 26.4 % in real terms.

[4] The Government of Japan, ‘Japan’s assistance policy for Cambodia’, (

[5] Simon Springer, Cambodia’s Neoliberal Order. Violence, authoritarianism, and the contestation of public space, London and New York: Routledge, 2010. Simon Springer, Violent Neoliberalism. Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

[6] Fukuda doctrine was enunciated by Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda on 18 August 1977, and was based on three high-level guiding principles: 1) Japan is committed to peace, and rejects the role of a military power; 2) Japan will do its best to consolidate the relationship of mutual confidence and trust based on «heart-to-heart» understanding with the nations of Southeast Asia; and (3) Japan will cooperate positively with ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] while aiming to foster a relationship based on mutual understanding with the countries of Indochina and will thus contribute to the building of peace and prosperity throughout Southeast Asia. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (hereafter MOFA of Japan), Diplomatic Bluebook for 1977: Review of Recent Developments in Japan’s Foreign Relations ‘Chapter Three: Diplomatic Efforts Made by Japan’, i.l.

[7] Oliviero Frattolillo, ‘Beyond Japan’s Foreign «Aid Fatigue»: The Path from the Cold War Gaiatsu to the New Millennium Agenda’, Asia-Pacific Journal of Social Science, Special Issue No 3, December 2012, pp. 16-32.

[8] David Arase, ‘Japanese policy Towards Democracy and Human Rights in Asia’, Asian Survey, Vol. 33, no. 10, Oct. 1993, pp. 935-952; David Arase, Buying Power: The Political Economy of Japan’s Foreign Aid, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publisher, 1995; Iokibe Makoto, ‘Gaiko senryaku no nakano nihon ODA [Japanese ODA as a part of foreign policy strategy]’, Kokusai mondai 517, April 2003, pp. 2-20; Mikio Oishi and Furuoka Fumitaka, ‘Can Japanese aid be an effective tool of influence? Case studies of Cambodia and Burma’, Asian Survey, 43, 6, 2003, pp. 890-907. David Arase (Ed.), Japan’s Foreign Aid: Old Continuities and New Directions, London and New York: Routledge, 2005. Lam Peng Er (ed), Japan’s Relations with Southeast Asia: The Fukuda Doctrine and Beyond, New York: Routledge, 2013. Kei Koga, ‘Transcending the Fukuda Doctrine Japan, ASEAN, and the Future of the Regional Order’, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2017.

[9] Michael J. Green, Japan’s Reluctant Realism. Foreign Policy Challenges in an Era of Uncertain Power, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2001; Glenn D. Hook, Julie Gilson, Christopher W. Hughes, Hugo Dobson (eds.), Japan’s International Relations: Politics, Economics and Security, New York: Routledge, 2001; Christopher W. Hughes, Japan’s Remilitarisation, New York: Routledge, 2009; Michael Auslin, ‘Japan’s New Realism. Abe Gets Tough’, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016; Alessio Patalano, ‘«Commitment by presence»: naval diplomacy and Japanese defense engagement in Southeast Asia’, in James D.J. Brown and Jeff Kingston (Eds.), Japan’s Foreign Relations in Asia, London and New York: Routledge, 2017, pp. 100-113.

[10] See Marie Söderberg, ‘Japan’s ODA as soft power’, in Purnendra Jain and Brad Williams (eds.), Japan in Decline: Fact or Fiction?, Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2011, pp. 37-54.

[11] Purnendra Jain, ‘Japan’s foreign aid: old and new contests’, The Pacific Review, 2016, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 93-113.

[12] Tsuyoshi Kawasaki, ‘Between Realism and Idealism in Japanese Security Policy: The Case of the ASEAN Regional Forum’, The Pacific Review, 1997, vol. 10, pp. 480-503. John Mueller, ‘The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World’, International Security, Vol. 13, No. 2, Autumn, 1988, pp. 55-79; Thomas U. Berger, Mike Mochizuki & Jitsuo Tsuchiyama (eds.), Japan in International Politics: The Foreign Policies of an Adaptive State, London: Lynne Rienner publishers, 2007.

[13] Lam Peng Er, ‘Japan’s human security role in Southeast Asia’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 28, n. 1, 2006, pp. 141-59; Soeya Yoshihide, Nihon no Middle Power Gaiko [Japan’s Middle Power Diplomacy], Tokyo: Chikuma-shinsho, 2005.

[14] Mark Beeson, ‘The political economy of security: Geopolitics and capitalist development in the Asia Pacific’, in Anthony Burke & Matt McDonald (ed.), Critical Security in the Asia Pacific, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007, pp. 56-71.

[15] Andrew McGregor, Southeast Asian development, New York: Routledge, 2008.

[16] A new document that outlined US policies toward Japan, NSC 6008/1, was approved in June 1960. It pointed out that on the economic front, Japan was not only the second-largest export market for the United States, but also the largest purchaser of American agricultural products, while the United States was the largest importer of Japanese products. The approval of this document provoked riots and protests in Japan, supported by leftist forces of socialist and Communist parties. See NSC 6008/1 Washington, June 11, 1960.

[17] Robert Brenner, What is Good for Goldman Sachs is Good for America. The Origins of the Present Crisis, Centre for Social Theory and Comparative History, 2009, p. 9. See also Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence. The Advanced Capitalist Economies from long Boom to long Downturn, 1945-2005, London: Verso, p. 269.

[18] Robert Brenner, What is Good for Goldman Sachs is Good for America, pp. 2, 36.

[19] The «flying geese» metaphor was drawn up by the Japanese scholar Akamatsu Kaname in 1932 and subsequently submitted to the English academy in 1961, applying it to describe the Japanese product cycle. Kaname Akamatsu, ‘A Historical Pattern of Economic Growth in Developing Countries’, The Developing Economies, Vol. 1, n. 1, 1962.

[20] Sueo Sudo, The International Relations of Japan and South East Asia, New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 2-3.

[21] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[22] Ben Fine, Daniela Tavasci & Jyoti Saraswati (eds.), Beyond the Development State: Industrial Policy into the Twenty-First Century, London: Pluto, 2013.

[23] On the development state model and its myth, see Chalmers A. Johnson, MITI and the Japanese Miracle: the Growth of Japanese Industrial Policy, 1925-1975, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982. Alice H. Amsden, Asia’s Next Giant, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Robert Wade, Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialisation, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

[24] Dae-Oup Chang, Capitalist Development in Korea. Labour, capital and the myth of the development state, New York: Routledge, 2009, in particular ch. 2. By the same author, see also Fetishised State and Reified Labour, A critique of the developmental state theory of labour, (

[25] Some of them did not ratify the San Francisco treaty, such as The Philippines and Indonesia. Consequently, Japan signed different peace treaties: India (1952), Taiwan’s Chang Kai-shek (1952), Burma (1954), Cambodia (1955). Some others, such as Sri Lanka, refused Japanese reparations, arguing that this would affect the Japanese economy. See Wolf Mendl (ed.), Japan and South East Asia: The Cold War era 1947-1989 and issues at the end of The Twentieth Century, London and New York: Routledge, 2001, Vol. II, pp. 18-20.

[26] The Cambodian Communist The Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) was founded in September 1951 and KPRP’s leaders in the early 1950s (until 1954) accepted Vietnam’s leadership in the struggle to liberate Indochina from the French. See Thomas Engelbert & Christopher E. Goscha, Falling Out of Touch: A Study on Vietnamese Communist Policy towards an Emerging Cambodian Communist Movement, 1930-1975, Melbourne: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1995.

[27] David Chandler, A History of Cambodia, Boulder: Westview Press (4th ed.), 2008, p. 7. Milton Osborne, Sihanouk, Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness, Bangkok: Silkworm, 1994.

[28] Ibid., p. 227.

[29] Yukiko Nishikawa, Japan’s Changing Role in Humanitarian Crises, New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 86.

[30] Actually, after the creation of ASEAN, in 1967, Japan had difficulty engaging a neutral group. Some countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, in particular, were reluctant to resume relations with Japan, due to the terrible inheritance of the Second World War. In Thailand, the anti-Japanese movement started from the late 1960s due to the dissatisfaction of the trade imbalance and in 1972 the «Japanese product boycott» campaign occurred. Equally worried was Malaysia, since Japan started to export synthetic rubber that would have limited the Malaysia export quotas. See Sueo Sudo, The International Relations of Japan and South East Asia, New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 34.

[31] William R. Nester, Japan’s Growing Predominance Over East Asia and the World Economy, London: MacMillan 1990, p. 80; Akitoshi Miyashita and Yoichiro Sato (Eds.), Japanese Foreign Policy in Asia and the Pacific: Domestic Interests, American Pressure, and Regional Integration, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001, p. 83. Cfr. Yoshihide Soeya, ‘Vietnam in Japan’s Regional Policy, in James W. Morley & Masashi Nishihara (Eds.), Vietnam Joins the World, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997, p. 176.

[32] Wolf Mendl, Japan’s Asia policy. Regional security and global interests, London: Routledge, 1995.

[33] In 1975, soon after the unification of Vietnam, Tokyo provided a three year ODA programme (¥ 27.5 billion) in grants and loans to Vietnam. In 1980, after the invasion of Cambodia, the Japanese government immediately froze US$ 135 million, and exports to Vietnam fell by almost one half. Ming Wan, Japan Between Asia and the West: Economic Power and Strategic Balance, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2001, p. 106.

[34] See for example UN General Assembly, Voting record. The situation in Kampuchea: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, A/38/251, 23, Situation in Kampuchea, 27 October 1983. Cfr. Andrea Pressello, Japan and the shaping of post-Vietnam War Southeast Asia: Japanese diplomacy and the Cambodian conflict (1978-1993), New York: Routledge, 2018.

[35] Wolf Mendl, Japan’s Asia policy, p. 97.

[36] The 27th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (1994) stated that «The ARF could become an effective consultative Asia-Pacific Forum for promoting open dialogue on political and security cooperation in the region». It comprises 27 members: the 10 ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), the 10 ASEAN dialogue partners (Australia, Canada, China, the European Union India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States), one ASEAN observer (Papua New Guinea), as well as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Timor-Leste, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

[37] Alice Ba, ‘Systemic Neglect? A Reconsideration of US-Southeast Asia Policy’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 31, No. 3, 2009, pp. 369-98.

[38] Sueo Sudo, Evolution of ASEAN-Japan Relations, Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2005.

[39] Tom Fawthrop & Helen Jarvis, Getting Away with Genocide? Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, London: Pluto Press, 2004.

[40] One of the most detailed analyses is that of Thomas Hammarberg, the United Nations Special Representative on Human Rights in Cambodia, and his report to the UN General Assembly published in ‘Cambodia: July 1997: Shock and Aftermath’, The Phnom Penh Post, 27 July 2007.

[41] Lee Jones, ‘ASEAN intervention in Cambodia: from Cold War to conditionality’, The Pacific Review, Vol. 20, No. 4, 2007, pp. 523-550.

[42] Kai Moller, ‘Cambodia and Burma: The ASEAN Way Ends Here’, Asian Survey, Vol. 38, No. 12, Dec. 1998, pp. 1087-1104, here 1089; Sorpong Peou, Intervention and Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy?, Singapore: ISEAS, 2000, pp. 373-4.

[43] Lee Jones, ‘ASEAN intervention in Cambodia: from Cold War to conditionality’, p. 541.

[44] U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, ‘USTR to Assess GSP Eligibility of Beneficiary Countries’.

[45] Actually, Japan never raised any note of protest against the coups that were repeated in the region, such as those in Thailand, or against the military junta in Burma, and much less in respect of attempted coups that had occurred in Myanmar. After the last coup in Thailand, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan, during his visit to Bangkok in May 2016, stated that «Thailand is a stakeholder that Japan cannot be without as many big and medium-sized Japanese firms from over 4,500 companies are based here». ‘Foreign minister reaffirms Japan’s economic ties to Thailand’, Reuters, 1 May 2016.

[46] MOFA of Japan, ‘Basic Approaches of Japan’s ODA (philosophy and principles)’,(

[47] After a long, difficult negotiation between the Cambodian government and the UN, the Supreme Court Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) settled in 2006, thanks to Japanese funds. Since then, Japan has provided roughly US$ 85.12 million (US$ 68.58 million to the international side and US$ 16.54 million to the domestic side), or about 32% of the international assistance for the Khmer Rouge Trials. MOFA of Japan, ‘Statement by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’, 23 November 2016.

[48] MOFA of Japan, ‘Exchange of Diplomatic Notes for the Entry into Force of the Agreement between Japan and the Kingdom of Cambodia for the Liberalization, Promotion and Protection of Investment’, 1 July 2008.

[49] MOFA of Japan, ‘Notification of the Entry into Force of the Japan-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement by Cambodia’, 27 November 2009.

[50] MOFA of Japan, ‘Japan-Cambodia Summit Meeting’, 15 December 2013. As of 2015, Japan has concluded 10 strategic partnerships, including with two regional organizations: ASEAN and the European Union.

[51] MOFA of Japan, ‘Japan-Cambodia Summit Meeting’, 15 December 2013, §3.

[52] Nicola Mocci, ‘Cambodia 2016-2017: the worsening of social and political conflicts’, pp. 117-129.

[53] US Department of State, Press Statement, ‘Visa Restrictions on Individuals Responsible for Undermining Cambodian Democracy’, 6 December 2017.

[54] Japan ‘expresses concern’ over CNRP, The Phnom Penh Post, 22 November 2017.

[55] MOFA of Japan, ‘Provision of Japanese-made Ballot Boxes and other Election equipment to Cambodia. (“The Economic and Social Development Programme” Grant Aid)’.

Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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