The Japan-China rivalry is playing out in Cambodia's election

  • Japan's support of Cambodia's general election is viewed as a strategic maneuver to counter Chinese influence in the developing state.
  • Tokyo's actions are also seen by some as indirect backing for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's authoritative regime.
  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may ultimately need to decide between maintaining economic power in Cambodia or upholding democratic standards, experts say.
July 8, 2018: An election poster with images of Heng Samrin, Honorary President of the Cambodian People's Party, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, in Siem Reap.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images
July 8, 2018: An election poster with images of Heng Samrin, Honorary President of the Cambodian People's Party, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, in Siem Reap.

Cambodia's general election on July 29 has become a proxy theater for competition between China and Japan as the two vie for influence in the Southeast Asian state.

As Phnom Penh's largest foreign investor and economic benefactor, the world's second-largest economy has donated $20 million in polling booths, laptops, computers and other equipment to the National Election Committee, an agency that supervises elections, according to the Associated Press. Tokyo, also one of Cambodia's top donors, has provided over 10,000 ballot boxes worth $7.5 million, Reuters reported.

Those contributions aren't surprising since both Asian heavyweights hold historically deep ties with the frontier economy. But Tokyo, concerned about Beijing's rising influence across Southeast Asia, is likely acting with strategy in mind.

"Japan’s economic footprint is starting to be dwarfed by the scale of Chinese investment in the country, through Belt and Road projects, and Chinese political influence," said Champa Patel, head of the Asia-Pacific program at London-based policy institute Chatham House. For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, "maintaining relations with Cambodia will be to act as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the country and the wider region," she continued.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration has offered Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's government billions in development assistance and loans through bilateral frameworks and the continent-spanning infrastructure program known as Belt and Road. That, in turn, has produced a flood of Chinese commercial ventures in the country, including economic zones, casinos and industrial parks.

Beijing's economic leverage is also believed to have translated into political clout: During a 2016 ASEAN meeting, Phnom Penh was widely seen as acting as an agent of China when it blocked mention of an international court ruling that rejected Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea in the group's official communique.

Meanwhile, security-research firm FireEye announced last week that it found evidence of a Chinese hacking team infiltrating computer systems belonging to Cambodia's election commission, opposition leaders and media. It wasn't immediately clear if any data was breached, but FireEye said the episode likely provided the Chinese government with visibility into Cambodia's election and government operations.

Amid those developments, Japan is looking to ramp up its presence in the developing state — the two nations signed a grant and loan agreement totaling over $90 million in April.

"Japan's foreign policy does seek to counter China's influence in Cambodia," said Paul Chambers, lecturer and special advisor on international affairs at Thailand's Naresuan University: "Japan, under Abe, wants to show Cambodia that trade and investment matter more for it than human rights — a consideration which has been of prime focus among Western countries."

Political consequences of Japan's aid

Critics say Japan's support of the July 29 election translates to direct backing for Hun Sen's authoritarian regime.

The vote has been called a democratic sham amid the absence of the country's main opposition faction, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court on government orders late last year. Because that party is unable to participate, Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party are likely to emerge victorious.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, is the world’s longest-serving premier. His 33-year rule has been marked by numerous allegations of corruption, politically motivated prosecutions and crackdowns on civil liberties.

The United States and the European Union have suspended funding to the National Election Committee, which is meant to be independent, but is widely believed to be controlled by the ruling party. The United Nations, meanwhile, has warned that the election won't be "genuine" and urged Phnom Penh to lift a ban on the CNRP, which is advising Cambodians to boycott the vote.

According to CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua, Tokyo should withdraw its cooperation: "Cambodia needs to move forward, and it can only do so with democracy ... that's why we continue to explain to Japan that the only chance to help Cambodia is to side with democracy."

The CNRP has tried reaching out to Beijing to explain its argument, but so far has been unsuccessful, Sochua told CNBC over the phone.

"To support Mr. Hun Sen is to support dictatorship and with dictatorship, no government can protect their investments," she said, adding that "Mr. Hun Sen will keep giving more concessions to Chinese companies, so if Japan wants to protect its investments, it should stay on the side of democracy."

In recent public comments, Japanese officials have urged Phnom Penh to hold free and fair elections, but didn't touch on on the government's human rights violations. Japan's embassy in Cambodia told CNBC that Tokyo's assistance was aimed at enhancing the credibility of the electoral process.

"Although Japan supports the technical and logistical aspects of the electoral process, they are not, at least in their own view, necessarily endorsing the legitimacy of the election itself," echoed Deth Sok Udom, a political science professor at Phnom Penh's Zaman University.

Ultimately, Abe may find he has to choose between maintaining economic power in Cambodia or upholding democratic standards.

"I suspect that Japan would opt for the first strategy," Chambers said.