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Where Others Dither, Japan Delivers on Aid to Ukraine

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Where Others Dither, Japan Delivers on Aid to Ukraine

Japan’s support for Ukraine demonstrates strong leadership and provides a glimmer of hope amid a divided and increasingly paralyzed Western alliance. 

Where Others Dither, Japan Delivers on Aid to Ukraine

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio delivers a keynote speech at the Japan-Ukraine Conference for Promotion of Economic Growth and Reconstruction in Tokyo, Japan, Feb. 19, 2024.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

As we reach the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, questions are being raised over the long-term commitment of Kyiv’s allies to its full victory and the liberation of all occupied territories. With political games continuing in Washington, and European countries struggling to plug the gap caused by U.S. inaction, Russia has entrenched itself on the battlefield as it has perpetuated atrocity after atrocity. The war has seemingly no end in sight, and there is a palpable sense of frustration among Ukrainians that they are not being provided with the equipment and ammunition they need to banish Russia from their territory for good, even as soldiers continue to give their lives on the front line. 

Surely, then, the news from the Japan-Ukraine Conference for Promotion of Economic Growth and Reconstruction on February 19 will have been welcome in Kyiv. In a demonstration of long-term commitment stretching beyond the symbolic, the conference brought pledges for grant-based assistance with landmine clearance, the opening of a JETRO trade office in Kyiv, the easing of travel restrictions, the start of negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty, and more than 50 memoranda pledging cooperation from the Japanese private sector. This comes in addition to around $10 billion of aid already pledged, and a further $1.35 billion fund to encourage private sector investment in Ukraine. 

Japan is doing all it can to prove to the Kremlin that it will ultimately be Ukraine, not Russia, that will prosper when the war is over. It is the latest demonstration of what Japan has claimed is its “unwavering support” for Ukraine. 

While much of this will take time to materialize, it is in stark contrast to the gloomy mood of the almost-simultaneous Munich Security Conference, where participants and commentators lamented the lack of firm commitments and the danger of U.S. abandonment. In particular, Eastern European and Baltic leaders, who are among Kyiv’s most steadfast supporters and have long warned of the dangers of a Russian victory, have decried the current, limited approach to supporting Ukraine. 

However, where those in Munich have dithered, Japan has delivered – a sharp reversal from a country once famously characterized as a “reactive state” and a “political pygmy.” These pledges from Japan not only play to its strengths, but they represent the latest step on a long road of seeking a greater global role and showcase the place of Japan as a firm supporter of liberal-democratic values under the concept of proactive pacifism. 

Public-Private Cooperation as Japan’s Ace Card

The conference focused on seven areas of support, which all fall in line with Japan’s experience, expertise, and economic strengths, aiming to be comprehensive in their coverage. Legal restrictions prevent Japan from sending lethal aid (although these restrictions are steadily being softened), so instead it largely focuses on humanitarian, economic, and non-lethal military aid. 

This article highlights two of the seven areas; infrastructure development and mine clearance. These areas on the surface have little in common, but they showcase the diversity of Japan’s aid expertise and highlight a key shared strength with which few can compete – Japan’s titanic capacity for public-private cooperation. This is both a key part of Japan’s own aid philosophy and a feature that has expanded since the second Abe administration, especially in the field of infrastructure development. 

Infrastructure development is perhaps what Japan is most famous for. The precise areas that Japan focuses ontransport, energy, financial services, healthcare, water and sanitation, and education – are among the areas Russia has hit the hardest and targeted the most in Ukraine. Japan’s history of public-private cooperation in this field speaks for itself; across Asia, Japanese flags mark roads, bridges, railways, hospitals, and airports that have been developed either in full or in part with Japanese ODA and Japanese private sector expertise. 

The Japanese infrastructure development sector is formidable, and it had a large presence at the conference in Tokyo, represented by firms such as Sumitomo, IHI, Isuzu, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Equally important is the backing of major financial institutions; agreements were signed with Japanese institutions providing export credits and financing. With an estimated $486 billion required for Ukraine’s postwar recovery, establishing a strategy early and having concrete plans and supportive infrastructure in place will be a boon in the long term in that it will enable reconstruction to take place as quickly and smoothly as possible. This is a clear case of Japan playing to its strengths and leveraging its existing expertise and capacity, delivering a long-term commitment to Ukraine. 

Mine Clearance as Public-Private Cooperation in the Humanitarian Sphere

Mine clearance may lack the headline-grabbing prestige attached to major physical infrastructure projects, but it is no less important, and Japan’s practice in the field again leverages the strengths of Japanese public-private cooperation. The scale of the challenge being faced in Ukraine is vast; it is estimated that it will take decades to clear all the mines in Ukraine, with it having become one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world. 

Mine-clearing efforts aimed at Ukraine have already begun, following Japan’s long history in mine clearance work, and it is also joining multilateral efforts on mine clearance in Ukraine. Last year, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) invited Ukrainian demining experts to Cambodia, where they received field training in how to use state-of-the-art Japanese mine detection equipment developed by Tohoku University, with the expectation that these eight would then go on to train others in their use. 

Japan has further pledged mine clearance equipment, developed and manufactured by Nikken Corporation (a subsidiary of Mitsubishi), along with a long-term commitment to refine the equipment further to suit operations in Ukraine and to develop local capacity through the dispatch of employees to train local operators. The faultless safety record of the equipment further showcases Japan’s capabilities in developing cutting-edge technology. 

Again, Japan is playing to its strengths to aid Ukraine in the most effective way it can. By focusing quickly and early on developing capacity and transferring equipment to Ukraine, it is demonstrating a long-term commitment to Ukrainian postwar reconstruction and development through the removal of the scars left by the invasion. Japan is leveraging its strengths in technology, research and development, and prior experience, whether public or private, and providing them quickly and at volume. 

By combining its efforts in both the immediate term (through mine clearing) and in the long term (via infrastructure development), Tokyo is showing the strength of its support for Kyiv and the values being protected by Ukraine’s defenders. 

Japan’s Long Path From Political Pygmy to Proactive Pacifist

Japan’s efforts to support Ukraine show a growing boldness in international affairs and a willingness to be a proactive player in them. For Japan, helping Ukraine allows it to take its place as a responsible member of the international community and showcase its values as a peaceful, liberal democratic state aiming to make the world a better, safer place. 

Proactive pacifism – the vision of late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo – is increasingly being actualized in Japan’s foreign policy, and Ukraine is perhaps the clearest example yet of this vision in action. Since Japan cannot provide lethal aid, it is doing everything it can short of that to deliver for Ukraine at a time when liberal-democratic values are under grave threat. 

Japan’s long-term commitment to Ukraine leverages its strengths as an aid provider and as a partner country and shows that its bond with Kyiv is strong. Its commitments promise to combine best-in-class infrastructure, equipment, and training provided by the private sector with substantial state support via finance, diplomacy, and planning, showing Japan making the most of its aid apparatus and expertise. The substance backs the pledges; Japan is effectively leveraging its expertise and finance to help Ukraine in the best ways it knows how, using the best of its resources, whether public or private. This will be invaluable if Ukraine is to prosper in the long term, and it is the proactive pacifism philosophy in action. 

Japan is showing initiative at a time when many other countries supporting Ukraine – not least the United States – find themselves stuck. Japan is by no means perfect in this regard, and it could go yet further in showing solidarity with Ukraine, such as by canceling pending energy cooperation projects with Russia. 

Nonetheless, Tokyo’s demonstration of commitment to Kyiv shows that it understands the importance of Ukraine’s long-term prosperity to global peace and stability, and it is making this proactive contribution to peace at a critical juncture. The scale and nature of Japan’s support show that it understands that “as long as it takes” inevitably means going longer and further than when the guns fall silent – proactive pacifism for Japan means a commitment to helping Ukraine win the aftermath as well as the war itself. 

The moods from the Munich and Tokyo conferences could not be more different; as the world dithers, Japan delivers.