Peering into the void that is Japanese foreign policy

Uesugi Takashi, a Japanese freelance journalist, has an article at Diamond Online (Shukan Daiyamondo’s web site) reporting live from the press room at TICAD IV in Yokohama.

As usual, the title says it all: “It’s incompetent to do only aid / Japanese foreign policy’s fruitless effort at the Africa development summit.”

Uesugi paints a portrait of the foreign ministry’s ineffectual efforts to tie aid to Africa to African votes for Japan in international organizations: among others the International Customs Organization, the International Criminal Court, and, of course, the UN Security Council. Uesugi suggests that not only are these efforts wasteful, they’re also counterproductive. His most prominent example is the 2005 vote on Japan’s accession to the Security Council, when fifty-three African countries followed China’s lead in opposing it despite MOFA’s efforts to gain their support, despite Japan’s being the biggest giver of aid to Africa.

Uesugi spoke at length to Suzuki Muneo, the onetime LDP HR member famous (infamous?) for hiring African hissho and known for his substantial control over the foreign ministry as a gaimu zoku. (He left the LDP in 2002 shortly before he was arrested and later convicted on bribery charges. He now sits in the Diet as a representative of his “New Party Great Earth,” a Hokkaido-based microparty.) Muneo emphasized the need for MOFA to use Japanese taxpayer money wisely, an unusual criticism coming from a legendary abuser of taxpayer money. Muneo’s point, however, is that MOFA’s courtship of Africa has been vulgar, based on the explicit pursuit of commitments from African governments to support Japanese membership of the UNSC.

It remains exceedingly unlikely that Japan will buy African support, given China’s overwhelming advantage in the amount of money pumped into Africa. Uesugi notes that China enjoys a 40-1 advantage in FDI in Africa, $4 billion compared to $100 million for Japan. The value of China’s trade with Africa is twice that of Japan, the number of Chinese companies operating in Africa is ten times the number of Japanese companies, and the number of Chinese nationals on the ground is 100 times the number of Japanese nationals. China’s sizable presence may make it more vulnerable to backlash from host nations, but there is no comparison. If this is a race, Japan is still tying its shoes and getting ready to compete.

Prime Minister Fukuda has made clear at UNCTAD IV that Japan intends to compete, not least by creating a $2.5 billion investment fund to assist Japanese companies in increasing FDI in Africa and doubling ODA.

It’s worth asking what Japan hopes to achieve in Africa. Is it acting out of altruism? Is it looking to enhance its image abroad? Is it still trying to assemble a coalition that will push Japan into leadership positions in international organizations, including the ultimate prize of the UNSC? Is it hoping to secure new energy suppliers? Is it just trying to be a good global citizen? I suspect the answer is the latter, but I’m not quite sure if MOFA has tried to answer the question. In its pursuit of foreign policy, Japan often appears to pursue the symbolic in the hope that it will provide the answer to the question of what role Japan should play globally. I think this explains the Japanese government’s endless pursuit of a permanent UNSC seat. I don’t think Tokyo really knows why it wants a seat. It only knows that the Security Council is perhaps the world’s most exclusive club, and it wants in. The same goes for Japanese enthusiasm for the G8; Japan is probably the most enthusiastic member of the club, again probably because it’s an exclusive club. But the G8 has gradually lost its value as its agenda has moved beyond financial issues and as its membership has become less representative of the global distribution of power. And yet despite the diminishing importance of the G8, the Japanese government is making strenuous efforts in the hope of making its presidency of the G8 a success (whatever that means).

That’s not to say that Japan shouldn’t try to get the most out of its G8 presidency or undertake other initiatives to expand Japanese influence abroad. My point is that Japan lacks a clearly articulated foreign policy that would give Tokyo an overriding reason for wanting to hold leadership positions in important international organizations (and, for that matter, have a more substantial presence in Africa). The pursuit of these tokens is not in and of itself a foreign policy. Instead of wasting its effort, money, and time, the Japanese government and the Japanese people (whose money is spent on these initiatives) need to step back and ask basic questions about Japan’s foreign policy, then rank its foreign policy priorities, and then distribute its finite resources accordingly.

To bring the discussion back to TICAD, the point is not that Japan shouldn’t be looking to deepen its engagement in Africa. Rather, the Japanese government has an obligation to the Japanese people to explain why Japan has an interest in committing Japanese taxpayer money to Africa and to explain how Japanese engagement in Africa serves Japanese national interests.

3 thoughts on “Peering into the void that is Japanese foreign policy

  1. Anonymous

    I agree with your claim that the Gaimusho does not really grasp what it would mean to become a permanent member of the SC other than to wish to enviously revel in the prestige of joining the other 5 powers in making decisions for the rest of the world. The disgusting spectacle of trying to bribe other UN members to vote for expansion of the SC and for Japan to take its place on the Council is reason enough to reject its becoming a permanent member. The performance of Japan at the six-party talks where it tried to elevate the dispute with NK on abductees to the same level as the denuclearization issue shows the lamentable bad judgment of Japanese diplomats at international forums and explains why they are often not taken seriously. Perhaps Fukuda can restore some sense that Japan is a serious player in international affairs this summer at the G8 talks in Hokkaido.


  2. China imports a lot of its oil from Africa while Japan of course relies on the Arab countries in the Middle East, so the fact that China has much more FDI going to Africa is not exactly a fair criticism of Japan\’s Africa policy. I don\’t think we want to see Japan investing in Sudan, as China does. Africa is difficult…


  3. Has Japan not been extremely effective in bribing certain nations into supporting its whaling efforts? Whatever else it may be, the Japanese government\’s support for scientific whaling is a clearly stated foreign policy goal. The idea that engaging in \”disgusting spectacle\” is itself grounds for denying Japan a seat at the UNSC is plainly ridiculous.Of course, whether the pro-whaling campaign model is applicable to achieving career diplomats\’ dreams of filling up their \”international organization chairmanship bingo\” cards, an effort of which the UNSC bid seems to be a part, is an entirely different question!


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