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Japan's JICA on why U.S. policy affects Asia more than Europe

Shinichi Kitaoka, President, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)

Created in 1974, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has been working since then to support developing nations with programs that range from infrastructure projects to education opportunities for youths. Building on Japan’s own experience of modernization and democratization, the agency seeks to forge ties that will help recipients grow by themselves while ensuring that sponsored projects are financially viable and environmentally sustainable. In this interview, JICA President Shinichi Kitaoka touches on what U.S. protectionism and China’s Belt and Road Initiative mean to Japan and explains how the agency is trying to create a better world through shared humanity and trust

China has been a fierce competitor to Japan in international development, especially with the One Belt One Road Initiative, yet at the same time, there are opportunities for working together towards win-win situations. What is your relationship with China on development issues?

The One Belt One Road concept is not very clear, so it is important to pay attention to each individual project and neither overestimate or underestimate it. Infrastructure development projects have to be economically viable and environmentally sustainable. If they are, we can cooperate, but if not then we will work separately. When considering a project, the financial capacity of the recipient country has to be taken into account. China has sometimes lent too much and ended up gaining certain rights from the countries in default, which has been described by critics as a “new form of imperialism.” We should always keep in mind that international aid has to be above all helpful to the recipient country. Certainly, developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa have numerous opportunities for working together. Japan has coexisted with China for many centuries, we are accustomed to each other, and we have common experiences and a shared history. To implement international development in a collaborative manner, we should create a new norm, a new standard to incorporate the new donors including China. This issue should be discussed at broader forums than the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD, such as the G20.

“Our infrastructure development projects must be economically viable and environmentally sustainable”

Support to South Sudanese refugees in Uganda (JICA/Takeshi Kuno) Photo: (JICA)
Tsubasa Bridge in Cambodia Photo: (JICA)

What kind of projects and values does JICA focus on?

Japan is putting a lot of effort into investing in infrastructure in the Southeast Asia region, and as far away as India and Africa. Japan has been committed to assisting in infrastructure development in Southeast Asia since the 1950s. Our logic is to assist their infrastructure development as a catalyst for foreign private investment, which is the major driving force of sustainable growth. We sometimes get criticized for not focusing so much on poor African countries but rather on Southeast Asia, but this region is a good example of what I mean: it experienced a boom of the export industry, which brought wealth and created a middle class, and this, in turn, encouraged democracy. Twenty to thirty years ago, nobody believed that Indonesia and the Philippines would ever become a democracy. So it’s a virtuous circle: assistance for infrastructure development, private investment, creation of a middle class, and democratic and sustainable growth. Sometimes we are told that we are supporting undemocratic leaders, but we believe that by helping these nations we are encouraging democratic processes. Infrastructure development may go some way towards this goal, but equally important is the concept that we call human security, which is more than just seeing to people’s basic needs, it is also an attempt to help them stand on their own two feet. Sometimes vocational training and educational assistance can be a key element in this goal. So JICA’s programs have a double focus: human security and quality growth.

Globalization comes with opportunities and insecurities. How is JICA helping uphold universal principles like the rule of law through its work?

We consider how to guide nations towards peace. Take for instance Mindanao, the island in the Philippines: we are providing assistance to build roads there, providing an incentive for dialogue between the government and the Moro groups. This is what I call “peace dividend in advance.” If Muslim groups on Mindanao are very isolated, they may feel tempted to turn to more radical influences. And in northern Uganda, we are providing support to refugees coming in from South Sudan, and we are trying to provide vocational training. We invite future young leaders among the Syrian refugees to come to Japan to give them a higher education, enrolling them in two years’ master’s degrees with a view to have them go back and rebuild their own country with the knowledge they have gained. We have students from Afghanistan and other countries on this kind of program, and we find that this is an effective approach. When I was ambassador to the UN, there was a heated discussion between developing and developed countries over RtoP, Responsibility to Protect. The international community has a responsibility to intervene in a conflict in theory, but in practice, this is almost impossible, as we have witnessed many times, the latest in Syria. So we have turned to human security to help those people who are trapped in conflicts.

“The impact of Trump’s policies is much bigger in Asia than in Europe”

The U.S. appears to be retreating towards greater protectionism. How can Japan and the U.S. cooperate on foreign policy, and how does it affect JICA’s work promoting human rights in the world?

The impact of Trump’s policies is much bigger in Asia than in Europe. Asian countries are connected to each other via the U.S., who has been the champion of the global liberal system. This is a good thing, and we trust that the U.S. will return to its usual policies after Trump is gone. It is possible for the U.S. to uphold an “America First” policy, as well as for other superpowers such as China and Russia to do something similar, but ordinary countries cannot afford to do this, and so we need a stable international system.  Japan broke the international cooperation system in place in the 1930s, and therefore we know how important it is to maintain international cooperation and not to seek solutions for international disputes through power. It is an important point for us following the experience of two world wars. This might mean greater cooperation with Southeast Asia, with European countries, and even with China. The important thing is that everyone follows a common direction towards democracy and stability; the pace of democratic development might be faster or slower, but as long as they are moving in the same direction, it’s all right. Japan modernized without losing its traditions, and we can work as a bridge for other countries moving towards democracy. We have a responsibility as connectors, and we must maintain good relationships with the rest of the world. Our policy in Southeast Asia is not to try to increase our own presence, but to promote other countries’ independence and sovereignty.

Which are the competitive advantages of Japan in the international arena?

The fact that people can live longer than ever before is a blessing. Japanese people’s physical health is improving, and older people are willing to work. So the elderly can still contribute to society and the world. Many older people are studying: I remember teaching an 86-year-old graduate student once. So it is important to contribute to improved health and create opportunities for learning, to give seniors an agenda and goals. If older people become taxpayers rather than recipients, the equation changes and the tax burden is reduced. The question is, how do we achieve a good mixture of older people with traditional views and younger people with innovative views? Japan has been at the forefront of many innovative ideas, but at the conceptual level, Japan is a little behind. It was slow to adopt information technology. Take for instance government administration: we still vote by writing down the name of the candidates. Innovation is slowing down, and Japan needs a big change right now. We have to learn more from the world. That is my message to young people.

“Our approach is about sitting down together on equal footing to consider what is best for your country, not to give you lessons or bring you charity”

What makes Japan an ideal country to promote and to develop these programs, and how does JICA keep working towards this goal?

In terms of per capita assistance, Japan does not rank that well compared to some other countries in the OECD. But our assistance is well received and appreciated wherever we go because of our approach. It’s about sitting down together on equal footing to consider what is best for your country, not to give you lessons or bring you charity. And this approach gives us added value. To strengthen this approach, we have adopted a new vision for JICA: “leading the world with trust.” Under this vision, JICA, with its partners, will take the lead in forging bonds of trust across the world, aspiring for a free, peaceful and prosperous world where people can hope for a better future and explore their diverse potentials.

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