Dangerous turn in ODA policy

The Abe administration reportedly has its eyes set on changing the government’s basic policy on official development assistance so that Japan can use the aid program for the armed forces of foreign countries. This marks a complete departure from the traditional policy based on a nonmilitary principle.

The planned policy change could ruin the trust Japan has gained in the international community through its policy of limiting its overseas aid to economic fields and civil welfare.

The administration should give up on the plan, which might pave the way for equipment and knowhow provided through the aid program to be used on battlefields, thereby making Japan a party to armed conflicts overseas.

The government adopted in 2003 the current basic policy on ODA with Cabinet endorsement. It sets down four principles: (1) attaining both economic development and environmental protection, (2) avoiding provision of ODA for military use and in ways that could fuel international conflict, (3) paying attention to aid recipients’ defense spending and weapons trade, and (4) paying attention to democratization and protection of basic human rights and freedom in recipient countries.

The government has so far strictly followed these principles in its overseas aid programs. But in its review of the ODA policy that it plans to complete by the end of the year, the Abe administration is reportedly trying to change these principles on the basis of the national security strategy it adopted last December, which calls for strategic use of ODA as well as linking overseas aid with the Self-Defense Forces’ peacekeeping operations and other overseas missions.

The administration has set up a study group composed of experts under Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to review the current basic policy on overseas aid. This group has no legal authority — just like the private advisory body for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that recommended changing the long-standing government interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution so that Japan can engage in collective self-defense, enabling the SDF to defend Japan’s allies under attack even if Japan is not directly being attacked. It is deplorable that important discussions on changing Japan’s overseas aid policy are being held behind closed doors by groups with no legal basis.

The study group is said to be considering use of the aid program to assist noncombat activities of recipients’ armed forces such as training military personnel for post-disaster rescue operations and offering patrol ships to armed forces for maritime policing of sea lanes.

Tokyo is in talks with Hanoi — which is engaged in a bitter maritime dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea — to provide Vietnam’s coast guard with patrol vessels through the ODA program once the coast guard, which was part of the Vietnamese Navy, is reorganized into an independent body. Once Japan’s ODA policy is changed, Tokyo will be able to provide such aid directly to military organizations.

The study group will discuss measures to prevent such aid from being diverted to military purposes. But once aid has been provided, it will be difficult for Japan to ensure its use is limited to noncombat activities. For example, the knowhow for medical treatment or logistical supply that members of recipients’ armed forces have acquired through the Japanese aid program could be used on battlefields.

The Abe administration has effectively scrapped Japan’s long-standing ban on weapons exports. It should seriously reflect on the possibility that the planned changes to the nation’s overseas aid policy could damage the diplomatic assets that Japan has built through its traditional aid program that focused on economic development and the improvement of people’s welfare. In addition, implementation of the new policy could result in cuts to Japanese aid for civilian programs, such as efforts to eradicate poverty in developing nations. If this occurs, the social and political situations in these countries could become destabilized.

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