Next up for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Figuring out how to put official development assistance (ODA) to “strategic” use so the international aid program can help Japan make a more “proactive contribution” to world peace, one of Abe’s pet policy goals.

Since the program was launched 60 years ago, Japan has provided ODA mostly to developing countries with the aim of building up their infrastructure and reducing poverty.

In what would be a major departure, however, Abe is looking to extend the permissible use of ODA to include security policy, possibly to fund noncombat operations carried out by foreign military forces.

What is official development assistance?

ODA takes the form of grants and loans to developing countries, mainly to promote economic development and welfare.

In Japan’s case, the aid is dispersed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and excludes grants or loans for military purposes.

ODA is either provided to the recipient country directly or through multinational organizations, such as the World Bank or United Nations.

What guides Japan’s thinking on ODA and what takes priority?

The ODA Charter, adopted in 1992 and revised in 2003, spells out four principles:

Environmental conservation and development should be pursued in tandem.

Any use of ODA for military purposes or for aggravation of international conflicts should be avoided.

Keep close watch on trends in recipient countries’ military spending in relation to their overall economic development.

Closely monitor recipient nations’ efforts to promote democratization and secure basic human rights and freedom.

Based on these four principles, successive administrations have focused on aiding economic development in the recipient nations.

In 2011, around 40 percent of Japan’s ODA budget was earmarked for economic infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, followed by 24 percent for social infrastructure areas, including education and health care.

Meanwhile, the United States, Britain and Germany focus more on social infrastructure, while France and Italy focus on financial support, such as debt relief.

Where on the globe does most of Japan’s aid end up, and how has this changed over time?

Asia has been the largest recipient, with ODA starting out as part of postwar compensation efforts.

Japan provided its first official aid to Burma in 1954 (the payments continued until 1976). Against this historical backdrop, more than 90 percent of Japan’s ODA in 1970 went to Asian nations, with the bulk of it going to Indonesia and South Korea.

Since then, Japan has gone farther afield in search of recipients, mostly in Africa and the Middle East.

In the 2012 ODA budget, Asia received 56.2 percent, followed by the Mideast and northern Africa with 15.4 percent, and sub-Saharan Africa with 12.7 percent.

Some critics say Japan is expanding the number of recipients in a cynical bid to win support for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.

Yet Asia has remained the priority region under the conviction that supporting economic growth and bolstering diplomatic nations with neighboring countries is crucial to Japan’s prosperity and stability. China’s growing maritime assertiveness only adds to the importance of bolstering regional ties.

By country, Vietnam was the largest recipient of Japanese ODA in 2012 at $1.64 billion, followed by Afghanistan at $873 million and India at $704 million, according to the Foreign Ministry.

How big is the ODA budget?

The budget for ODA expanded from the 1960s to the 1990s as the economy took off in Japan’s rush to rebuild from the war. Japan became the world’s top aid donor in 1989, a position it would trumpet for the next 16 years.

The budget, however, has been slashed in half over the past 17 years, from ¥1.16 trillion in fiscal 1997 to ¥550 billion this year, reflecting Japan’s prolonged economic woes, including a “lost decade.”

In 2012, Japan ranked fifth in ODA after the United States, Britain, Germany and France, according to the Foreign Ministry.

To cover the shrinking aid budget, the government has attempted to raise the quality of the support by focusing more on sustainable development, such as by nurturing human resources.

How is Japan using ODA in the field of security?

In the first such use of ODA, Japan provided three patrol ships to Indonesia in 2006 — during Abe’s first stint as prime minister.

To keep these craft from being used for military purposes, as required by the ODA Charter, they were delivered with the caveat that they can only be used to fight piracy.

Japan Coast Guard personnel are also sent to Malaysia under the ODA budget to teach search and rescue techniques to local trainees.

The government decided last year to provide 10 patrol boats to the Philippines using ODA, and officials are mulling a similar offer to Vietnam amid rising tensions between those two nations and China in the South China Sea.

Why does the Abe administration want to revise the ODA Charter?

The National Security Strategy adopted by the Cabinet last December stipulates more strategic utilization of ODA in line with Abe’s policy of making more proactive contributions to global stability.

The administration also hopes to spur the domestic economy by using ODA to help seed the ground for overseas activities by Japanese firms in regions of vital importance.

Although the details of the new charter have yet to come to light, Kyodo News reported in May that the revisions may allow Japan to direct aid toward foreign military forces engaged in noncombat operations.

A panel under Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to file recommendations by the end of this month. Based on the recommendations, the administration plans to revise the charter before the end of the year.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .