In August 2020, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped down as the longest-serving prime minister of Japan. Many analysts and scholars have argued that the legacy of his long tenure was pragmatism, his economic orientation and introducing values into Japan’s foreign policy.

Already in 2007, Abe defined Japanese foreign policy values in liberal terms, which included freedom, democracy, and respect for basic human rights. The importance of those liberal values has been continuously highlighted in the country’s foreign political guidelines, most recently the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision” (FOIP). The centrality of values is also apparent in the Official Development Cooperation (ODC) Charter revised in 2015.

Recently, Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga, confirmed the continuation of the value-oriented foreign policy Abe developed. But how did the value-oriented policy manifest in actual policies? The case of Myanmar is a good example to show that values have played only a marginal role in Japan’s foreign policy so far.

Japan has traditionally had good relations with Myanmar but distanced itself from the country during the period of martial law (1988-2011) to avoid international criticism. Bilateral relations were quickly resumed and expanded after the military junta introduced a constitutional government in 2011. Not only did Japan make Myanmar its leading recipient of aid, it also waived Myanmar’s debt of over ¥200 billion in 2013.

In alignment with the idea of a value oriented foreign policy, the Abe administration highlighted that Japan would provide “full-fledged support to the efforts of the government of Myanmar towards democratization, enhancement of the rule of law, economic reforms and national reconciliation.”

The reality is that Japan under Abe had been focusing almost entirely on the economic aspect of its relation with Myanmar. A common justification for rapprochement in Japanese policy circles despite Myanmar’s already visible human rights violations under then-President Thein Sein, such as the ongoing discrimination against Muslims in the state of Rakhine, was that economic development eventually leads to democratization.

At the same time there are also important domestic factors that explain Japan’s behavior. Under Abe, ODC became an important tool to revitalize the Japanese economy that had been stagnating since the 1990s. It was not a coincidence that the aid to Myanmar was primarily coordinated by the Infrastructure Strategy Council, an advisory council formed by Abe in 2013 with the primary aim to triple the export of Japanese infrastructure sales to ¥30 trillion by 2020.

Next to improving Myanmar’s railway and telecommunication system, Japan was also involved in developing the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, a 2,400-hectare industrial park.

The robust economic growth of Myanmar and the potential benefits for the Japanese economy clearly relativized its initial clear position to actively strengthen the democratization process. According to the Fragile States Index, Myanmar has continuously ranked in the red category of high-risk countries, without any improvement since Japan strengthened its engagement there.

Japan never raised questions about the flawed Constitution that equipped the military in Myanmar with great power, and which, even after the political reforms, retained the right to veto any decision made in the parliament.

In addition, despite the violence committed against Muslims, in 2019, Abe officially hosted a visit of the Tatmadaw commander in chief, Senior-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, one of those most responsible for the crimes committed in 2017.

On Feb. 1, 2021, Myanmar began to disintegrate into chaos after a coup d’etat. The coup followed the results of the election in November of the previous year, which weakened the position of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s proxy party.

It is needless to say that Japan is not responsible for the coup. Yet, there is no doubt that the massive influx of Japanese investments paired with a lack of both human-rights considerations and monitoring of the political-process amplified Myanmar’s existing social conflicts and contributed to the consolidation of military-backed rule.

It is Gen. Hlaing, who Japan always maintained a friendly relation with, that is being held responsible for killing more than 800 civilians in the ongoing anti-coup protests.

Japan’s reluctance to firmly advocate values has only continued after the coup. On Feb. 24, following weeks of relative silence, Tokyo announced that it would stop any new OCD projects to Myanmar, giving the impression that it was taking firm action against the junta. By investing ¥189.3 billion ($1.7 billion) in 2019, Japan has, by far, been the largest ODC aid source for Myanmar within the OECD.

However, this view is rather misleading. Stopping new ODC projects came automatically into effect when the coup occurred, given that formal procedures of ODC project approval require an internationally recognized government on the recipient side.

In other words, as long as the military junta is not officially recognized, no new ODC projects could ever be implemented, even if Japan was willing to do so. It is also worth noting that Japan did not consider to suspend any ongoing projects at that time.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi highlighted that the country will “closely cooperate with like-minded countries such as the United States while playing (its) own role.” In practical terms, Tokyo has joined in on the condemnation by the international community but has been unwilling to respond with concrete actions against the military junta.

Japan is the only country in the group of seven that did not apply any sanctions. Interestingly, Japan does not even have a legislative foundation to apply sanctions based on human rights violations, a strong indication that it has been reluctant to abolish its noninterference principle, which has been central for its post-war policy.

While there is a considerable number of Japanese companies in Myanmar that could be negatively affected by deteriorating relations, there are also large amounts of loans provided to Myanmar through ODC and foreign direct investment.

A disruption of ongoing projects would undoubtedly cause problems in debt repayment. It was only after growing international pressure that Motegi began to acknowledge in late May that Japan may suspend all ongoing ODC projects with the remark that “We don’t want to do that at all … .”

The case of Myanmar shows clearly that Abe did not fundamentally change the pragmatic, economically-oriented foreign policy of Japan. It also unravels the fundamental intention of its so-called valued-oriented foreign policy that forms the foundation of initiatives such as FOIP, namely, that it was primarily created to distinguish itself from China.

With Japan’s economic recovery still enjoying the highest priority, there are not enough key decision-makers within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the government who are willing to seriously jeopardize this goal by making values a leading principle of the nation’s foreign policy.

The inclusion of values in Japan’s foreign policy strategy, starting with the Abe administration, prompted great expectations, especially from the U.S. and Europe. It remains to be seen how far Japan will go to promote liberal values when great economic gains are at stake, not only in Myanmar but also in other countries such as China, where human rights have been systematically violated.

Raymond Yamamoto is associate professor at Aarhus University in Denmark and adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum specializing in Japan’s foreign policy.

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