Japanese economic assistance for China will focus on environment conservation and human resources development, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said Sunday in response to calls to stop aiding the rapidly growing neighbor.

Aid for China “has been specially offered in the environment and training of personnel,” Machimura told a government-hosted Tokyo symposium attended by experts and the public to discuss Japan’s official development assistance.

While some people at the symposium voiced doubt about giving aid to China, Machimura said suspending assistance in the environmental field would be “negative for Japan.” He said the money has helped curb air pollution in China, which can affect Japan.

Machimura said it is too early for Japan to end the economic assistance.

“There are still many impoverished people in inland areas of the country,” he said.

But he also suggested Japan may not continue extending the aid in the long run given China’s booming economy.

“We can rightly anticipate that the day when China graduates from (the ODA) will come,” he said. But he declined to say when that would happen.

It was the first time Machimura has spoken about ODA policy since he took over as foreign minister in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle.

Japan’s aid to China has declined for three straight years since 2001, according to the Finance Ministry. The figure dropped to 108 billion yen in 2003 from 227 billion yen in 2000.

Machimura was pessimistic about expanding the total amount of foreign aid, given the government’s chronic budget deficit.

The Finance Ministry cut ODA budget appropriations for the fifth consecutive year through fiscal 2004.

Describing the fiscal situation as “disastrous,” Machimura said the ODA budget has to be cut and hopes the people and countries affected will understand.

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