No formal decision has yet been taken in Tokyo, but the fact that an early pull-out is being discussed is bad news for the already faltering attempts by the UN to establish peace and prepare for an elected government in Cambodia.
The Japanese government, fearing its troops might be in danger if the security situation deteriorates further, is thinking of bringing back its forces soon after Cambodian elections are held in May, according to Kyodo, the Japanese news agency. Originally the 600-member Japanese contingent, which is mainly employed in repairing roads, was due to stay at least until October.
But fears are mounting in Phnom Penh that the country is heading for another outbreak of civil war. The Khmer Rouge has refused to comply with the main provisions of the peace plan, signed in Paris in October 1991, claiming that the UN has sided with its former enemy, the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh.
Last Thursday 45 UN personnel in northern Cambodia were subjected to a day-long artillery barrage, apparently by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. No one was hurt, and the UN troops were later evacuated from the area. The Khmer Rouge had previously taken a number of UN troops hostage for several days, claiming they were spying for the government.
A week ago 15 ethnic Vietnamese living in a fishing village in central Cambodia were massacred by the Khmer Rouge. At the same time there is mounting evidence that government troops have been intimidating and, in some cases, killing potential political rivals.
The UN force, initially welcomed by Cambodians as a panacea to end 13 years of civil war, has fallen out of favour as it has proved ineffective in combating corruption and unable to enforce a nationwide ceasefire. But still most Cambodians had hoped the UN would not pull out entirely after the planned elections in May. The Japanese head of the UN operation in Cambodia, Yasushi Akashi, said last summer that some UN peace-keepers might stay on to help guarantee peace after the elections.
An undignified retreat from Cambodia would also come as a severe embarrassment to Japan. The dispatch of Japanese peace- keepers to the country last October was meant to be a sign of Tokyo's determination to play a more active diplomatic and political role in Asia.