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JAPAN: Fresh Aid to Mekong Signals Rivalry with China — Experts

TOKYO, Nov 11 2009 (IPS) - There is more to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s pledge last week to extend at least 500 billion yen (5.6 billion U.S. dollars) in fresh assistance to the Mekong region than meets the eye, or so observers think.

Japan’s underlying intentions toward the Asian economies, especially in the Mekong delta regions, have not changed significantly, said Tomohiko Taniguchi, a foreign policy analyst and professor at the prestigious Keio University.

What has changed is that there is now a sense of urgency and crisis among many Japanese bipartisan policy makers that the Mekong sub-region is going to be a “playground” for the Chinese, he said.

The strategy of the new government, which was swept into power in September’s landslide election, is to build the Asian community like the European Union, he added.

“Unless Japan and other like-minded democracies do the job, it will be carried out solely by their giant neighbor, the Peoples Republic of China,” said Taniguchi “But rarely will Japan state its true intention.”

In the last 10 years China has increased its aid and investment in the Mekong region, including mines and rubber plantations in Laos and trade with Myanmar.

A 2008 policy brief released by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which is headquartered in Canada, noted that China “provides considerable foreign aid to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, often without any major conditions attached and frequently integrated with cultural exchange and support.”

Hatoyama, however, did not touch on any rivalry between Japan and China during the Japan-Mekong Summit in this capital on Nov. 6 to 7, when he made the pledge. On the contrary, he said the two countries were cooperating and engaged in discussions exploring ways to work together to their mutual benefit.

“Ten years ago China was the biggest recipient country of Japanese aid. But after China launched its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, the Japanese government said, ‘You have grown up and you have graduated from the ODA [Official Development Assistance] scheme,'” said Taniguchi.

Japan, however, continues to extend aid to China, targeted mainly at ending environmental degradation and building small schools in rural areas in the communist state. Thus the amount of money involved is small, said Taniguchi.

Japan’s new ODA to the Mekong region, to be disbursed over the next three years, is said to be aimed at strengthening the former’s role as a development partner.

The fresh aid is in addition to Japan’s previous pledges of nearly 400 billion yen (4.5 billion U.S. dollars) in aid for the region since 2007.

ODA refers to the funds and technology that donor nations like Japan extend to developing countries.

“In order to further advance the region, it is a priority for Japan to step up ODA,” Hatoyama told reporters at a news conference Saturday at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence in Tokyo.

Other experts agree that Japan’s promised fresh aid signals its attempts at establishing closer relations with the resource-rich region of at least 220 million total population in an apparent bid to foil China’s growing ties with the Mekong countries.

“Japan seeks to take a more proactive role in the region to offset China’s charm offensive and growing influence,” said Jeffrey Kinston, Japan expert at Temple University Tokyo.

According to Taniguchi ODA infrastructure in Mekong is important because the region constitutes a hinterland for countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, which are important nations and original members of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN). It also sits right in the middle of the sea lines of communication, a lifeline for the Japanese economy.

The peaceful stability of East Asian economies is one of the most important policy objectives of Japan as well as the United States, he said.

During the summit Japan also vowed to continue to increase its ODA to the region for projects such as highways, water, waste disposal, technology and climate change.

“The major purpose of having this summit is to discuss how best the Mekong countries and Japan can work together to reduce or eliminate the current disparity between the ASEAN countries,” said Kazuo Kodama, spokesperson for Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The level of economic development varies across the ASEAN’s 10 member states, from poorly developed countries like Laos to highly developed economies like Singapore, according to Hatoyama.

The summit brought together Hatoyama and his five counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, all members of the ASEAN. The countries share the Mekong River along with China.

The Mekong region is located along the lower stretches of about 4,800 kilometres of the Mekong River, which begins in the highlands of Tibet and flows through China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The region is collectively poorer than other areas of Southeast Asia.

“It will be very meaningful to keep holding this kind of leaders’ summit every year given changes in the international climate,” Japan’s prime minister told reporters. He added that he planned to have a Japan-Mekong summit in Tokyo every three years and once a year on the sidelines.

To further ties with the Mekong countries, Japan will invite 30,000 youths over the next three years, which will serve to improve the region’s trust in Japan. “All this will be very important,” Hatoyama said.

Aside from Japan and China, the U.S. under President Barack Obama’s watch has also shown keen interest in the region in sharp contrast to the Bush administration, which never showed much interest in the region.

“The fact that the United States and China are trying to increase cooperation with the Mekong region is not bad for Japan at all,” Hatoyama said. “Rather, it is desirable to create a win-win relationship with them by cooperating further.”

He noted the U.S.’s advancement of democracy in the region would be welcome as well.

Burma’s participation in the summit drew significant attention from Japan as well as non-governmental groups. Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein, who was among the heads of state present at the summit, was the first premier from the military-ruled South-east Asian country to visit Japan since 2003, when his predecessor, Khin Nyunt attended the Japan-ASEAN talks.

In February 2009, a Japan-Mekong exchange year was started in Burma’s former capital of Yangon to show off the cooperation and friendship between Japan and Burma (officially called Myanmar).

According to Kingston, NGOs which favor strict sanctions for Burma worry that Hatoyama’s initiative to establish an East Asian Community will diminish the isolation strategy and may open the door for the Asian Development Bank to resume programmes that would involve Myanmar under the neutral Mekong tent.

The EU-style East Asian Community is an initiative that Hatoyama has espoused since taking office in September. It will include Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and the 10-member ASEAN regional bloc to help bind regional ties similar to those of the EU.

At a press conference on Saturday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung expressed appreciation for Hatoyama’s initiative seeking “to contribute to the building of an East Asian Community in the long term based on openness and transparency.”

The leaders promised to work together toward “a decade toward the Green Mekong,” which they plan to start in 2010.They are also committed to bringing about a successful result at the Copenhagen climate change

They also discussed ways of expanding cooperation in areas such as climate change, politics, security, pandemic control, economy, culture and tourism.

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