TOKYO — A $9.6-billion foreign aid program that will make Japan the world's largest aid donor is bringing new political clout to Tokyo and casting a shadow on U.S. influence across Asia, forcing Japan to face up to political and security issues that once were ignored.
From Rangoon to Manila, Beijing to Jakarta, governments are taking note as Japan uses foreign aid as a political weapon, transforming its longtime image as an "economic animal" interested only in promoting exports.
In Burma, for example, Tokyo last year cut off aid in its first protest against repression in a foreign country. It has now lifted the freeze on ongoing projects, but has told the Burmese that new aid will be withheld until another government is elected.
A Distinct Change
"We wouldn't have done that five years ago," acknowledged Koichiro Matsuura, director of the Foreign Ministry's Economic Cooperation Division.
After Chinese troops brutally quelled demonstrations in Beijing early this month, Japan announced what amounted to a freeze on new aid projects to China--although it toned down the political impact by adding a disclaimer that the move was not meant as a sanction.
Japan also has recently used aid as an enticement in promising assistance to Vietnam if it would withdraw its troops from Cambodia, and to Iran and Iraq for ending their war.
"Previously, if 100 countries had to decide their policies on a particular issue, Japan would make up its mind only after the first 50 had reached a decision. That way, Japan always ensured that it would join the majority," said Morihisa Aoki, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Manila. But now, he noted, "It's no longer good enough just to watch what the others are doing."
The Principal Source
And Asian nations are looking more to Japan than to the United States for help in economic development. For 14 of them, Japan is now the principal donor.
Japanese aid focuses on projects ranging from power stations, roads, harbors, railways and communications facilities to water buffalo research and crocodile breeding:
- In Thailand, infrastructure including roads, bridges and a new airport that Japan financed in Bangkok has been credited with igniting the economy of the entire nation.
- In Indonesia, new rice strains developed with Japan's aid have helped make the country self-sufficient in grain production. Recently Indonesia received a pledge of $2 billion in overall new loans from Tokyo.
- In China, which receives more than half of its foreign aid from Japan, a Japanese Youth Corps volunteer at the Tianjin Institute of Physical Education is teaching Chinese how to play baseball--in a stadium financed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Beginning in 1990, Japan has promised China more than $1 billion annually in aid for six years. (Japan said nothing about this pledge when it announced its freeze on new aid projects.)
The explosive expansion of Japanese aid--a nearly fourfold increase in the last 11 years--has underscored to Asians a relative decline by the United States, for decades the world's leading aid donor.
Indeed, Washington itself, burdened by massive budget deficits and "aid fatigue" brought on by its own obligations, is turning to Japan to finance U.S. policies.
In the Philippines, for example, the United States is joining Japan as co-sponsor of a $10-billion multilateral aid program designed to combat poverty and maintain political stability. But while the United States has been more vocal in promoting the five-year package, Japan is picking up most of the bill.
In another instance, former President Jimmy Carter, with cup in hand, came calling on Matsuura, whose rank is the equivalent of a deputy assistant secretary of state. Carter wanted Japanese assistance for the Carter Center civilian aid program in Africa, and Matsuura agreed.
"Essentially, we're saying to the Japanese, 'Here's how to carry out aid. You do it. We don't have any money,' " said one U.S. official in Washington who asked not to be identified.
Although Japan surpassed the United States in 1988 in the amount of official development assistance in its budget, a quirk in the disbursement of American aid enabled Washington to retain its No. 1 position as an aid donor. A $4-billion chunk of U.S. aid appropriated in earlier years was allocated last year, pushing up U.S aid to $12.2 billion from the $8.2 billion that was budgeted.
In 1989, however, Japan has budgeted $9.6 billion worldwide--compared with $8.9 billion for the United States--and this year is viewed as certain to pass Washington.
Many American officials say they see Japanese aid as a complement to U.S. foreign policy, an expansion of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. For example, Japan has responded to U.S. requests for aid to countries that Washington considers strategically important, such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Jamaica, El Salvador and Honduras.