Questionable ODA policy shift

The Abe administration next month plans to introduce new guidelines on nation’s official development assistance (ODA) that will pave the way for aid to armed forces of other countries on condition that the assistance is used for non-military purposes. The aid can also be used for activities that are expected to help enhance Japan’s security interests.

These guidelines represent a departure from the traditional policy on economic aid by Japan, whose main thrust has been to aid developing countries in such areas as elimination of poverty, improvement of infrastructure, humanitarian assistance and environmental protection based on a principle that the aid will not be provided to armed forces of the recipients. As such, the move could deviate from the objective of Japan’s overseas aid to contribute to the well-being of people in developing nations.

Once again, a major change in the nation’s diplomatic policy is being made on the basis of discussions by a panel whose members were chosen by the government. This time the panel was created inside the Foreign Ministry. When the Abe Cabinet reinterpreted Article 9 of the Constitution to enable Japan to engage in military missions under collective self-defense, its decision was based on recommendations from a private advisory panel to the prime minister.

According to the draft of the new guidelines disclosed last month, Japan will push its ODA policy from the viewpoint of “proactive pacifism,” a phrase used by the Abe administration to push for Japan’s greater presence on international security matters. Under the new guidelines, Japan will be able to provide ODA to the armed forces of recipient countries if it is used for civilian purposes such as disaster-related rescue operations and reconstruction. Japan will examine individual cases and will not provide the aid if it is going to be used for military purposes or will likely foment an international conflict, the draft says.

It is questionable, however, if Japan can realistically rule out aid to gray-zone purposes or stop recipients from diverting the equipment or know-how to military purposes once the aid has been provided.

The draft also says that Japan will be able to provide aid to other countries to fund their anti-terrorism missions and activities to improve maritime, space and cyberspace security. Regarding aid to enhance maritime safety, the Abe administration has in mind providing patrol vessels through the ODA program to Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which face bitter territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

According to the draft, Japan can also use its official aid to fund activities linked to the United Nations peacekeeping operations, such as emergency humanitarian aid under conflict situations, efforts to end a conflict, disposal of unexploded ordnance, including land mines, and retrieval of small arms. Most of these activities may need to be carried out by military units.

Japan’s aid programs implemented for the eradication of poverty, infrastructure building and environmental protection have been appreciated by recipient nations and are believed to have helped gain Japan considerable respect in the international community. The nation’s overall spending on overseas aid has nearly halved from ¥1.01 trillion in fiscal 2001 to ¥550 billion in the fiscal 2014 budget. Linking some of the programs to security purposes could result in diverting resources away from the needs that they used to serve.

The government should reflect on the continuing importance of economic aid to civilian areas, which has been a key diplomatic asset of Japan. Any major change to the ODA policy should involve full discussions in the Diet.