The Reiwa era ushers in an opportunity for Japan to reflect and refashion its position in regional and international politics — including sensitive areas such as peacebuilding. Marawi City in the Philippines could be the most strategic place to start.
Peace aspirations have informed Japanese foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. Although the pacifist doctrine has limited Japan’s military participation in the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations, it has allowed Japan to explore other avenues to exercise its peacekeeping role in disrupted states through noncoercive means. It has circumvented the restrictions of pacifism and found its peacebuilding niche by converting its noncombatant assets as critical actors in infrastructure construction. The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) engineering units have been instrumental in providing training and education to other troop-contributing countries, as well as improving the preparedness for emergency response. In 2016, Tokyo made a slight but significant revision, allowing the JSDF to perform “rush-and-rescue” operations for personnel working in dangerous situations. Japan’s emphasis on the human security aspect of peacebuilding established it as less interventionist and more aligned to the local sensibilities of conflict-affected communities.
Tokyo’s role has been especially noticeable in the Philippines. Japan was the top provider of overseas development assistance (ODA) to the Southeast Asian state in 2018. It is responsible for $5.98 billion or 41 percent of the Philippines’ ODA portfolio. Behind Japan are the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United States, and South Korea, which have also been supporting peace efforts in Mindanao.
Peace in Mindanao has been elusive for decades. Amidst the negotiations for the law that later created the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), an armed confrontation erupted between the government troops and Islamic State (IS) militants in the Islamic City of Marawi in May 2017. The Marawi siege lasted for five months, claimed the lives of 920 militants, 165 soldiers, and 47 civilians, and forcibly displaced 360,000 people (although these numbers are likely incomplete).
The rehabilitation of Marawi city is a crucial component of peace in Mindanao. President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the whole island of Mindanao at the outbreak of the Marawi siege. The stalled rehabilitation and the slow return of the refugees run the risk of reigniting violent extremism and inciting another round of conflict. With reports of the IS militants’ regrouping and recruitment activities, the Philippine government needs to act quickly to prevent the extremist groups from capitalizing on these sources of public discontent.
However, government-led rehabilitation has been slow. In June 2017, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Recovery, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation of Marawi City, also known as Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), was created. However, it took over a year for the TFBM to start working on the ground. Residents of Marawi have criticized the lack of local consultation during the planning phase and the authorities’ failure to obtain consent for the demolition and clearing of their houses and businesses.
In the aftermath of Marawi’s liberation, Japan immediately pledged to participate in humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts. Japan’s most recent contribution is 2 billion yen (approximately $18 million) worth of development aid to construct transcentral roads along with arterial sections spanning 20.8 kilometers. This fourth installation of a development aid package brings Japan’s total contribution to Marawi’s reconstruction to $36 million.
Japan’s assistance is channeled through the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA’s) two-pronged peacebuilding approach: the immediate provision and restoration of basic social services and the disbursement of development assistance for long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction of socioeconomic infrastructures. For example, the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR) provides emergency employment while improving livelihood support for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the Marawi siege.
Other foreign governments have also provided technical assistance and financial support to Marawi city. The U.S. government pledged approximately $15 million worth of foreign aid assistance and delivered two Cessna C-208 aircraft. Australia also pledged $20 million geared toward child protection and counseling services among IDPs. As of November 2018, the Philippine government has received a total of $670 million in the form of concessional financing and grants from various governments and multilateral organizations.
The Chinese government has also donated approximately $1.5 million for relief operations. This contribution, however, sits uncomfortably in the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the Philippines.
China’s presence in the disputed West Philippine Sea, the influx of Chinese foreign workers, and Chinese nationals who are misbehaving in the country further raised public distrust toward China. Duterte recently broke away from his usual pro-China stance, but it is yet to be seen if his rhetoric will be translated into Manila’s foreign policy.
Anti-Chinese sentiment also echoes in Marawi city. Despite calls for a locally led rebuilding process, the government chose the Chinese-led Bangon Marawi Consortium (BMC) for the task. Two of the BMC firms have been previously debarred by the World Bank due to fraudulent practices, including the falsification of documents. The BMC was eventually disqualified after failing to furnish proof of financial capacity. These controversies did not stop the Philippine government from tapping another Chinese-led group, PowerChina, to lead the reconstruction of the city. These plans are yet to come into fruition while the ground zero of the Marawi siege remains inaccessible to the public.
Local voices are often silenced in high-level and top-down diplomatic peacebuilding efforts, as the case of Marawi’s rebuilding has demonstrated so far, and this is where Japan has the potential to fill the gap.
Japan’s credibility in infrastructure development is the core of its peacebuilding diplomacy. Central to Japan’s unparalleled track record in infrastructure development is not only its technical expertise but also its readiness to include local perspectives. Japan has been collaborating closely with local stakeholders to ensure that local concerns are considered throughout the peacebuilding process.
Japan’s ability to transfer skills under its engineering forte in rebuilding war-torn cities and municipalities is a notable peacebuilding diplomacy trait. It underpins the human connection aspect of the overall peacebuilding mission. Japan’s local engagement, by means of its high technical expertise and training of local partners, cultivates trust and goodwill that are essential in achieving local ownership and sustainability of peace.
Japan’s peacebuilding diplomacy is one of its untapped sources of soft power. What is missing among Japanese policymakers and diplomats, however, is a coherent strategy that highlights Japan’s robust and unique peacebuilding contributions. Adopting such a strategy could amplify the achievements and maximize the opportunities from Japan’s peacebuilding diplomacy.
The dawn of the Reiwa era is a fitting moment for Japan to conduct a deep soul-searching of its international peacebuilding role. Japan has the resources to create a compelling narrative that leverages on the multiparty and networked perspectives of its localized peacebuilding efforts. By exploring and enhancing its unique brand of peacebuilding diplomacy, Japan gains another valuable soft power asset — a highly indispensable diplomatic arsenal to shape its external environment in a very volatile geopolitical backdrop.
Dahlia Simangan is an Assistant Professor of Peace Studies at Hiroshima University. She conducts research on issues related to post-conflict rebuilding processes.
Mark Manantan is a research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Taipei. He is also the founder of Bryman Media.
The views expressed in this article are personal.