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Japan’s ODA to China—End of a Momentous Foreign Policy Failure






The Japanese government announced the end of its official development assistance (ODA) to China in late October. This makes it a good time to ask, what does Japan have to show for its expenditure of JPY3.6 trillion (USD32 billion) in public funds and nearly 40 years of effort?


Retracing the course of Japan’s massive ODA undertaking reveals a gigantic gap between intentions and results, underscoring the significance of one of Japan’s greatest post-war foreign policy failures.


The Shock of the Chinese Public’s Ignorance


The Sankei Shimbun opened its General China Bureau in the fall of 1998 and I was assigned as its first bureau chief. The mainstay of Japan’s overall policy toward China at the time was its offering of ODA. But the state of affairs in China with regard to Japan’s assistance quickly shocked me.


Despite the fact that ODA was clearly the cornerstone of Japan’s overall policy toward China, there was no public recognition or acknowledgment on the Chinese side of the huge sum of Japanese taxpayers’ money, or the hope that accompanied it for advancing friendship between the people and governments of the two countries.


China’s state-run media reported absolutely nothing on economic assistance from Japan. Average Chinese citizens had no clue of Japan’s aid.


Huge sums of Japanese ODA were used, for example, to construct a new Beijing International Airport Terminal building, the Beijing subway system’s Line 2, and the Nanjing Maternity and Child Healthcare Center. However, Japan was not mentioned at the opening ceremonies or on commemorative plaques and literature regarding the facilities.


Japan’s economic assistance to China confined to ODA. The Ministry of Finance and the Japan Export-Import Bank also provided China with other public funds under the name of “resource loans.”


These loans amounted to JPY3.3 trillion (nearly USD30 billion) by 1999, exceeding the total ODA at the time and effectively doubling the value of Japan’s aid to China to JPY7 trillion (about USD62 billion).


No Way to ‘Reach the Hearts of the Chinese People’


From the outset in 1979, when then-Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira visited Beijing, “friendly relations between Japan and China” were stressed as the objective of Japan’s ODA to China.


Japan’s ODA was significantly increased in 1988 and then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita unequivocally declared its main purpose to be “reaching the hearts of the Chinese people.” But there was no way to reach the hearts of people who knew nothing about ODA from Japan.


There is also no evidence the Chinese government ever promoted friendly policies or improved its attitude toward Japan on account of the ODA.


On the contrary, in the 1990s, as Japanese ODA grants rose to even greater heights, the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-Japan propaganda campaign intensified even further. The CCP campaign, including China's revisionist “history” issue, was clearly intended to inspire hostile feelings toward Japan.



Measuring Failure and Success by Japan’s ODA Charter


Nevertheless, from Japan’s standpoint, the success or failure of its monetary assistance to China should be judged against the criteria of the government’s ODA Charter.


The charter stipulates that Japan’s ODA must “avoid any use for military applications,” with particular attention to the “trends in military spending, weapons of mass destruction and missiles” of the recipient country. Likewise, ODA should “promote democratization” and “guarantee human rights and freedom.”


The verdict is crystal clear: Japan’s ODA to China violated all of these criteria.


Instead, Japanese financial aid provided the Chinese government the leeway to carry out its ambitious military expansion. The record is replete with the official statements of high-ranking officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) proudly announcing the high military value of the airports, railways, and highways built by Japan’s ODA funds.


The fiber optic cable to Tibet is but one example of the Chinese military’s direct use of infrastructure built with Japanese ODA.


Another example is the railway system in Fujian Province, used for the frequent transfer of military units and weapons to maintain the PLA’s readiness for an attack on Taiwan. Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, for one, pleaded when I interviewed him in his office in 1997: “Japan can provide China with ODA, but please refrain from assisting the PLA forces poised to attack Taiwan by expanding railroads in Fujian.”


Moreover, Japan clearly overlooked the ODA Charter’s criteria, which prohibit the government from giving assistance to countries that outrightly oppress democratic ideas and human rights. China’s stance in opposition to both values is demonstrated by the current oppression of Uyghurs, among many other instances.


In retrospect, Japan's ODA to China can only be seen as an extralegal act that disregarded set policy on foreign aid determined by our own government. China was given singularly preferential treatment, including huge sums of money provided in lump sums every five years under a request-based system.


For China, these funds — designed to accommodate projects selected by China and specified in its national five-year development plans — were very effective in making their country stronger and richer.


That same China then turned its back on international norms in order to expand its regional domination and morphed into a powerful and anomalous nation that threatens Japan’s territories.


Japan’s ODA to China only contributed to the rise of this superpower intent on international domination.



(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)




Author: Yoshihisa Komori








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