“Japan’s Contributions to the Sustainable Development of a Free and Open World” may not read like a particularly catchy subtitle for the long-awaited 2023 Development Cooperation Charter, announced last year, but it accurately conveys the core message of the new document right from the beginning. Japanese policymakers believe that development assistance cannot be sustainable without security and the rule of law, and they further believe that development assistance should contribute to the provision of these in addition to its traditional goals.
This marks a sea-change for a country that in the past was often accused of being self-serving in the development assistance sphere, interested only in mercantilist expansion and perfectly content to provide funding to autocratic regimes if doing so supported Japan’s resource-seeking objectives. The new, fourth edition of the Development Cooperation Charter is a clear product of the times. It reflects a Japan increasingly confident in its self-image as a force for good in the world and an important counterbalance to autocracy in the midst of unprecedented geopolitical challenges, such as the expansion of China’s power and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This path continues the legacy of deceased Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, putting into practice his then-nascent philosophy of a Japan which would “proactively contribute to peace.”
Japanese Development Assistance and “Proactive Pacifism”
As I noted in my previous article on Japan’s new Official Security Assistance framework, there is little controversy around conventional Japanese development assistance either at home or abroad: it is generally viewed as non-threatening, and it has been a significant contributor to Japan’s popularity in a soft power sense, particularly in Southeast Asia. OECD peer reviews note Japan’s particular strengths in disaster reduction efforts and in ensuring that recipient countries feel a sense of ownership over development assistance projects. The days when Japan was an outlier in international development practice are now in the distant past.
The new Development Cooperation Charter is a strong reflection of this, following in the confident and self-assured footsteps of the previous revision and building on them significantly. From the very first paragraph, the new charter discusses the risks of “geopolitical competition” and the challenges to “the free and open international order and multilateralism” stemming from “actions that unilaterally change the status quo by use of force.” The charter draws a direct line between these issues and “food crises, inflation, debt crises and humanitarian crises.” This is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its global ramifications, with all of the scenarios listed having played out in some form in various countries in the last year.
The previous revision, promulgated in 2015 under Abe, was already considered to have moved Japanese development assistance in a direction more aligned with geostrategy, incorporating much of the administration’s political discourse such as the framing of development assistance as part of Japan’s aforementioned “proactive contribution to peace.” And yet, compared to the 2023 Charter, such language appeared restrained. The 2015 Charter referred only to “challenges facing the international community,” and couched these sentiments firmly in the framing of Japan as “a peace-loving nation” focused on “international cooperation.”
By contrast, the new Charter refers confidently to “the Free and Open World,” which is a clear reference to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework that Tokyo has championed, and which was devised under Prime Minister Abe, before the core text even begins. These are clear signs of Tokyo’s growing sense that it can be a force for good in global security, and a sign of its growing confidence in using all available national resources to do so, including development assistance – perhaps, in fact, a positive legacy of the Abe era.
This has gone hand-in-hand with the steady erosion of Japan’s post-war security taboo, which has long constrained the ability of policymakers to act freely on security matters. In the increasingly severe security environment in which Japan finds itself – with an expansionist and aggressive Russia proving on a daily basis how much of a threat it represents via its actions in Ukraine, with Chinese fighter jets requiring 575 scrambles due to incursions into Japanese airspace in the last fiscal year alone, and with North Korea testing record numbers of missiles in 2022 – it is little wonder that support for expanding the Self-Defense Forces is at an all-time high and that public sentiment toward them across all sections of society is overwhelmingly positive.
This has seemingly created policy space for a greater integration of security issues into fields from which security matters have been largely divorced. The new Development Cooperation Charter, in openly incorporating language lifted almost directly from the most recent National Security Strategy and in closely aligning their opening statements, is a clear indication of this, deepening the trends introduced in the previous charter.
Rising to the Challenge of the Times
The growing confidence of Japanese policymakers on matters of international security, and the seeming acceptance of the general public of policies that reflect this confidence, could not be more timely. The new Development Cooperation Charter positions Japan as ready to respond to the ever-greater challenges that the world faces, and it recognizes more strongly than ever that security and development go hand-in-hand by acknowledging the ripple effects of international crises and conflicts.
These ripple effects have been clearly visible in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over the last year. Without international coordination to formulate the Black Sea Grain Initiative, for example, it was predicted that the loss of Ukrainian grain shipments would have had severe impacts on countries in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and even now Russia threatens to abandon the agreement.
Most recently, Russia’s destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine, in addition to the immediate humanitarian crisis it has created, is predicted to have catastrophic environmental consequences that will last decades and cripple agriculture in the region. The ensuing flood covered 584,000 hectares of land that produced four million tonnes of grain and oilseed in 2021. This will reduce the availability of these products, of which Ukraine is a major exporter, and drive up the market price in other countries – a clear example of the cascading international effects of conflict.
The new Development Cooperation Charter was clearly written with an eye to events such as these. It demonstrates how well the lessons of the past year have been learned by Tokyo policymakers, who are ready to seize the initiative on making good on Abe’s legacy.
Japan is positioned to take a leading position in addressing such issues. The Japan International Cooperation Agency has extensive experience and expertise in issues such as agriculture support and irrigation, in addition to more obvious transferable expertise in disaster relief. If Japan is, in fact, to make a proactive contribution to peace, these appear to be areas of natural strength and synergy between Japan’s geostrategic and development assistance goals.
This is only one sphere for potential synergy; Japan is able to offer responsible, sustainable financing and project design with a level of expertise and volume that few can, or indeed do, match. The new Development Cooperation Charter is, as such, laudable in its intent and well-suited to meeting the challenges the world faces today – it very much indicates the desire for Japan to proactively contribute to peace.
Japan: A Force for Global Good
Even before Abe, Tokyo policymakers had for decades sought to position Japan as what they would describe as a responsible country that contributes to global peace, security, and stability in a manner commensurate with its economic power. However, Abe set in motion the wheels that would make such an evolution truly possible.
The results of these years of effort finally appear to be arriving. There is growing confidence from Tokyo that it will be a welcome presence in countering the world’s geopolitical and geostrategic challenges and providing assistance where needed to counter the threats – directly or indirectly – posed by crises of both natural and man-made origin.
The Development Cooperation Charter, very clearly written with an eye to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and with a clear understanding of the ripple effects posed to other developing countries, positions Japan as what it is capable of being – a force for global good. Japan has extensive expertise, finance, and a readiness among policymakers to provide these where needed to induce positive change, dealing with both the localized and wider consequences posed by geopolitical and geostrategic risks. Unlocking the potential for Japan to play this role as a global force for good has taken a long time, but the signal from the Kishida administration is clear: Abe’s legacy lives on.