Two recent extraordinary political statements by the Abe Administration reflect how deep, even neuralgic, Japan's sense of rivalry with China is. Each suggests that this rivalry may be undercutting Japanese diplomacy in general and its aid program in particular.
1.Mugabe in Japan
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is in the midst of a four-day state visit to Japan where it is reported he will be given the protocol honour of a court luncheon hosted by the Emperor and Empress. Not only that, Japan will extend a ¥600 million grant to the Mugabe regime for infrastructure development.
From 2001-2015, Zimbabwe received no new Japanese aid. What has changed? Not the quality of Mugabe's leadership (for length and venality of rule, Mugabe stands at or the near the top of the global pile), or Zimbabwe's management of foreign aid. Rather, China's commercial and diplomatic push into Africa and Japan's desire to gain more global support for its UN Security Council membership push, which China steadfastly opposes, appear to be the main drivers behind the Abe Administration's embrace of Mugabe. It is likely that while Mugabe will benefit from Tokyo's warm embrace, Japan's long frustrated UN Security Council reform plans, the Japanese taxpayer, and the people of Zimbabwe (the supposed beneficiaries of Japan's aid) will not.
2. Tokyo criticises Jakarta, and lowers its aid standards
In September 2015, Yoshihide Suga, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary and Prime Minister Abe's right-hand man, was highly critical of the Jokowi Administration's decision to award the Jakarta-Bandung high speed rail project to China and not Japan. Jakarta insisted that the project bidder waive the condition of an Indonesian government loan guarantee. As noted by Suga, this requirement, which the Chinese side met, goes against Japan's decades-long approach to aid and to the fiduciary principle of having host government investment in projects supported by Japanese overseas aid.
Not only did the fierce Japan-China competition over Asian infrastructure projects lead one of the most powerful Japanese political leaders to publicly criticise Indonesia and the Jokowi Administration (an extraordinary political statement), it has weakened Japan's decades-old policy of requiring host government loan guarantees for its aid projects. In May 2015, Japan announced a US$110 billion Partnership for Quality Infrastructure initiative, seen by many as a response to China's recent Asian infrastructure initiatives. The third pillar of this Partnership seeks to 'double the supply of funding for projects with relatively high-risk profiles'. The main mechanism to achieve this fiduciarily questionable goal is to:
...empower JBIC (the Japan Bank of International Cooperation) to actively provide funding for PPP infrastructure projects etc. with relatively high risk profiles (e.g. a project without a guarantee from a government of developing country to support the payment obligations of the off-taker under the purchase agreement).
The Japan-China rivalry is deeper and broader than the US-China one, and it is driving deep Japanese policy changes across a wide spectrum. These two extraordinary Japanese political statements reflect this change, and the risk that the Abe Administration's approach to its rivalry with China is warping long-standing bipartisan policy settings in ways that do not clearly benefit the Japanese people or those whom its aid program seeks to help.