View Full Version : The Rise of Pragmatism

12th March 2003, 02:36
Cuts in Japan's overseas aid budget may be just the first phase of a shift towards a more self-interested foreign policy, says Jonathan Watts
The Guardian, Tuesday March 11, 2003
"Small is beautiful" - that classic example of media spin - has become the message of the Japanese government as it switches the focus of its shrinking overseas development aid (ODA) programme.
Until recently, the world's most generous donor, Japan has been forced to cut back on its largesse by persistent economic woes that have seen its public debt balloon to 138% of gross domestic product - by far the worst borrowing rate of any developed country.
But as well as making a virtue of necessity, the change in direction of Tokyo's ODA policy appears to have been influenced by three other contemporary trends: a declining belief in multilateralism, growing attention on security rather than development, and a rising recognition that software (good global publicity) is at least as important as hardware (lucrative overseas construction projects for Japanese firms.)
Earlier this month, the lower house of parliament passed the government's 81.8 trillion yen (434.9bn), including a 5.8% reduction in aid spending. The third cut in three years brings Tokyo's ODA spending down to 857.8bn yen, well behind the United States in terms of total spending even though Japan proudly held the top spot for more than 10 years.
Constrained from using military force by its pacifist constitution, Japan has relied heavily on aid to project influence overseas. But it has been forced to scale it back by a fiscal crisis that will see the government issue a record 36.4bn yen of bonds this year.
Grant aid, including technical assistance, will fall 6.7% to 558.9bn yen, and contributions to international organisations will fall 10.6% to 247.9bn yen. The United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will escape with no change.
Among the worst affected will be the World Bank, which will see its contributions reduced, and China, which suffered a 25% cut in aid from Tokyo last year. Japanese foreign ministry officials say the cuts will not adversely affect efforts to help raise living standards in poorer countries. But the steady decline, following reductions of 3% and 10% in the past two years, has alarmed many.
"I fully understand that they have had to cut back a bit at this moment because of domestic pressure," World Bank president James Wolfensohn said earlier this year, "but I don't think it is in Japan's interests to cut back too much."
The change of emphasis will also see Japan put less effort into low-profile development projects, and more into high-profile peace-brokering activities, such as hosting and part-funding the Sri Lanka peace talks in Tokyo this week.
As well as cash, the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, is keen to contribute with resources and manpower for peacekeeping operations, such as that in East Timor, and rear-echelon support for US military action in Afghanistan.
This shift is partly a consequence of the arrest last year of Muneo Suzuki, a ruling party power broker who milked the aid budget by taking kickbacks from construction firms involved in overseas projects.
But the change also reflects a feeling in Japan that its leading financial contribution to international aid programmes over the past decade has not been sufficiently appreciated.
Foreign ministry officials still flinch at any mention of the 1991 Gulf War, when Japan's $13bn (8.1bn) contribution was dismissed as chequebook diplomacy because no personnel were dispatched. There is also growing frustration at the lack of progress in Japan's bid to become a permanent member of the UN security council.
But even bigger changes may well be in the pipeline. Mr Koizumi has established a taskforce to review Japan's foreign policy in the light of the rising power of China, new international security concerns and the economic challenges posed by globalisation.
Its proposals are contained within a paper that stresses the need for a more selfish approach to foreign policy. "Without a debate on national interest it is impossible to set a course for the nation," the document says.
It is far from certain that the proposals will be adopted wholesale by the government, but at a time of aid cuts they strengthen the impression that foreign policy debate in Japan is moving away from long-term multilateralism and towards a more self-interested, short-term and regionally-focused approach.
Pragmatism - especially in coordinating policy with the United States - appears to be the guiding principle. When Pakistan and India declared themselves nuclear powers, Japan suspended aid to the two nations to reinforce its diplomatic goal of non-proliferation, an idealistic legacy of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Yet, aid was quickly resumed when Washington needed the support of Pakistan for its campaign in Afghanistan.
The latest budget also reflects these new priorities with the first ever "human security" allocation - of grants worth 15bn yen - for dealing with post-conflict situations. Such a shift will heighten existing concerns that Japan's aid budget is being used less and less for peaceful development purposes and more and more for national security and the preservation of the bilateral alliance with the United States.
For the moment, however, the main driver for change is as likely to be economic as ideological. Given the dire straits of the government's finances, Japan may have little choice other than to trim its foreign policy ambitions. The developing world will increasingly be feeling the financial chill in Tokyo.