Japan’s new aid strategy builds bridges with the BRI
16 March 2018
Author: Fumitaka Furuoka, University of Malaya
On 23 February 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet outlined Japan’s new aid strategy and approved Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) 2017 White Paper. The Japanese government has pledged to employ Japan’s aid power for the realisation of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ that was announced by Abe in August 2016.
In Japan’s new strategic vision, the Indo-Pacific region — where ‘two oceans’ and ‘two continents’ converge — is crucial to maintaining global peace and prosperity. This new aid policy significantly expands Japan’s diplomatic playground beyond Southeast Asia to a wider area that includes the Indian subcontinent.
The new aid initiative announced ‘three pillars’ on which Japan’s contribution to this key region will rest. These include the promotion of a rules-based order, the enhancement of connectivity through ‘high-quality’ infrastructure and the implementation of maritime law enforcement. Interestingly, the three pillars seem to align with China’s grander and better-known Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The first and the third pillars indicate Japan’s intent to contribute to creating ‘soft’ infrastructure in the region by promoting institutional connectivity and human resource development. In other words, these two pillars seem to complement China’s ‘hard’ infrastructure projects under the BRI.
It is not entirely clear what is meant by the ‘high-quality’ infrastructure mentioned in the second pillar. This could refer to the Ise-Shima Principles for Promoting Quality Infrastructure Investmentendorsed by G7 leaders at the Ise-Shima Summit in May 2016.
Despite ambitious intentions, the Japanese government has pledged the comparatively negligible amount of US$110 billion towards certain ‘high-quality’ infrastructure projects in Asia. In contrast, the Chinese government promised more than US$4 trillion for numerous infrastructure projects in developing countries that aim to transform the region on a grand scale. Japan may only be playing a niche role in China’s massive and transformative economic initiative.
In the past, Japan expressed scepticism towards the BRI. But in May 2017, Abe sent a special envoy to the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. And at the Hamburg G20 summit in July 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Abe met and discussed Japan’s interest in collaborating with China in implementing the BRI. This was followed by Abe’s decision to attend China’s National Day celebration at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo in September 2017, which was a pleasant surprise for the Chinese government.
Could Japan’s new aid initiatives signal a policy change towards a harmonious collaboration with China in its ambitious efforts to build a modern-day silk road?
There are several possible explanations for this turn in Japan’s policies.
Japan may feel compelled to find more productive and harmonious ways to deal with China. US President Donald Trump’s apparent contempt for multilateral institutions and Asian economic integration raises questions about the United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. The Japanese government is well aware of the difficulty or even impossibility of attempting to counterbalance China’s influence in the region without US support.
Japan is also acutely concerned about the recent escalation of missile tests conducted by North Korea and Tokyo knows it needs assistance and cooperation from China to deal with the missile crisis. And some prominent business and political leaders in Japan, especially politicians from Komeito (a ruling coalition party), actively advocate for Japan to support the BRI.
Most importantly, Abe’s main political agenda is to amend Japan’s peace constitution. In the near future, Abe may want to call for a national referendum to amend the pacifist element of the Japanese constitution expressed in Article 9, which renounces Japan’s sovereign right to belligerency. Japan’s collaboration with China’s BRI could be a shrewd political manoeuvre to contain the Chinese government’s justifiable opposition to Japan’s constitutional reform.
Fumitaka Furuoka is a visiting senior research fellow at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. He is the author of New Challenges for Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) Policy: Human Rights, Democracy and Aid Sanctions