Kakehashi Trip Report #4: JICA Officials Share Perspectives on the Security-Development Nexus in East Africa

During my independent research for the Kakehashi Project, I met with officials from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to discuss Japan’s development assistance to East Africa. We specifically addressed the emerging nexus between Japan’s security and development initiatives in the region.

Since 1967, the Government of Japan (GoJ) has been managing defense trade exports under the Three Principles on Arms Exports. The law was intended to avoid any possibility that Japanese arms exports would “aggravate international conflicts.” Under the Three Principles, the GoJ bans Japanese companies from making defense trade exports to: 1) communist bloc countries; 2) countries subject to arms exports embargo under United Nations Security Council Resolutions; 3) countries involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts. The GoJ took additional steps in 1976 to establish blanket policy guidelines to further restrain defense trade exports to all other countries “in conformity with Japan’s position as a peace-loving nation.”

The Administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now working to change these laws in order to allow Japan to export military equipment to “international organizations such as those involved in U.N. peacekeeping operations on condition they do not take sides in conflicts.” This decision coincides with a growing trade deficit that is threatening to undermine Japan’s economic recovery. From this perspective, the defense trade exports are viewed to be as much a part of the Administration’s export promotion efforts as they are part of the country’s much debated military normalization process.

This brings us to the issue of capacity building in East Africa. One of the initiatives being pushed by the Abe Administration is to provide the littoral countries in the region with new capabilities to conduct counter-piracy operations. This includes the export of modern naval ships to the region and military training for their coast guards. According to JICA, these programs are likely to move forward but will present a challenge for the government because they raise delicate political sensitivities. In the case of the ships, the fact that they will be provided to civil authorities may not be enough. As modern naval vessels equipped with armaments, including machine guns, their export could enflame the domestic debate over the principles that ban arms export to any country since 1976 and the appropriate role for the military and defense industry in Japan today.

Djibouti serves as an interesting case because it has not traditionally been a major focus of JICA. However, the political context has changed since Japan opened its first semi-permanent overseas military base in Djibouti in 2011. That base, which supports counter-piracy and peacekeeping operations in the region, has raised the profile of Djibouti with politicians and defense officials. As a consequence, JICA has been required by the government to expand its operations in the country as part of Japan’s wider efforts to help secure vital trade and energy routes that pass through the region.

That said, JICA is designed to deliver development aid, not to provide military ships and training for security purpose. In other countries, this would typically fall to military defense cooperation agencies. However, it would be politically difficult for the Ministry of Defence to provide such assistance directly in Japan. While that could change once the export laws are changed and society is normalized to the military playing a bigger role in Japan’s foreign policy, JICA officials believe this will take some time. Until then, the GoJ will need to work through JICA and the Japanese Coast Guard to provide coast guard services within the extent that they remain civilian security services.

For JICA, this is a “delicate issue” because there is a lot of tension in a development agency to playing a direct role in supporting security operations in the region. The region poses serious dangers for JICA staff. The agency is not allowed to operate in Somalia due to security concerns in that country. And, its staff recently had to be evacuated from both South Sudan and Yemen. JICA is therefore aware of the challenge to provide naval vessels to coastal countries in these areas even though they are intended solely for civil law enforcement purposes.

According to one official, “In my personal opinion, this should be a military operation. JICA is a development assistance agency not a specialist in combatting piracy. We can get support from the Coast Guard, who has the expertise. But, they have the conflict in the Senakakus to manage” and might not have the capacity to support the operation on the scale imagined. JICA is therefore reticent to expand the scale of such programs.

Despite the organization’s reservations, JICA must nevertheless plan for follow through on the GoJ’s request to make these transfers when the export law changes go into effect. At present, JICA believes the first request will be for Djibouti. Even though the United States (U.S.) and United Kingdom (U.K.) would like Japan to send ships to Yemen, the situation there is too unstable. The Japanese Coast Guard and JICA have even stopped their training assistance to the Yemeni Coast Guard.

One official that I spoke with believes that the U.S. and U.K. are more experienced in these complex security environments and should take the lead. The official also said that Yemen is not the case for Japan to take on. Regardless of the operational security concerns, the Three Principles make it clear that Japan is not to export to countries engaged in international conflict. Given the international nature of terrorism and the number of actors engaged in the conflict in Yemen, that official felt that it is unlikely that Japan will provide naval vessels or further training to Yemen anytime soon.

However, Somalia is a potential candidate. In 2013, Japan resumed support to the new government in that country. This followed the Somali government’s perceived consolidation of power in the country. As a result of these changes, Somalia was invited to the Tokyo International Conference on African Development V (TICAD V). Japan is now investigating how to support counter-piracy capacity building in the country. While it is too early to consider the provisioning of a naval vessel to their coast guard, this request could follow. But, trust must be built first. And, there are still serious debates within the GoJ as to whether Japan should lead with security sector capacity building or social sector (education and health) capacity building. Right now, it is too early to tell which direction Japan will take.

However, JICA officials recognize that peace and security (P&S) will be a major focus for their organization moving forward. In TICAD V, the GoJ raised P&S to one of the most urgent areas of focus for development. This followed the deadly attacks in Algeria, which claimed the lives of 10 Japanese engineers. As a consequence of that incident, Abe made P&S a precondition for expanding Japanese business interests abroad. JICA is receiving requests from both the Japanese business community and the GoJ to promote increased peace and stability in Africa as part of the country’s export promotion agenda. Somalia and the Sahel are now viewed as two of the GoJ’s most important commitments in Africa.

The challenge for JICA is that Japanese development assistance traditionally starts from social sector capacity building and infrastructure development. Japan does not have deep experience in security sector capacity building and peace building operations when compared to other major powers. Even though Japan has developed an impressive record supporting U.N. peacekeeping operations in the last decade, this is a very recent shift in focus for Japan. JICA is therefore struggling to respond to the new P&S focus while simultaneously supporting its traditional development assistance programs around the world.

Looking ahead, how JICA responds will have a major impact on Japanese development assistance in Africa. Right now, piracy and terrorism are two important issues for the country. In fact, both piracy and Somalia were highlighted in Abe’s address at TICAD V. However, Japan’s support for counter-piracy operations in Africa is a very small percentage of its overall budget commitments and global strategy. JICA must therefore be careful not to undermine its other commitments.

Whereas Djibouti and Somalia have traditionally been lower priorities for JICA, Kenya remains the organization’s most important commitment in Africa. Since the 1960s, Japan has been engaged in projects in the country. And, according to one official, the Japanese people have developed a “psychological closeness” with Kenyans, Tanzanians, and Ethiopians in a way that’s unrivaled in the rest of Africa. In 2013, Japan committed $100 million in grants and technical cooperation to the country. Plus, Japan has made long-term aid commitments of $200-$300 million annually, including marquee projects like the Mombasa Port and Kenya’s modernization of power generation. While Japan is also talking to Kenya about providing naval vessels and training to its Coast Guard, these efforts pail in comparison to the larger infrastructure, agriculture, education, health, and environmental projects that JICA is leading in the country.

Another country of focus is Mozambique, where the GoJ sees huge potential for natural gas production. In the aftermath of the Fukushima incident and rising global competition for energy resources, such energy projects are of top priority for Japan. The GoJ has responded by tasking its ministries to focus on the country. JICA has responded by working with Mitsui Group and other private sector actors to secure oil exploration and development projects in the country. However, JICA recognizes that the relationship between the two countries must be built upon more than natural gas exports. JICA is therefore spearheading new projects in the infrastructure and agricultural sectors that could promote development in Mozambique that would make it possible for the country to play a role in Japan’s economic recovery and export promotion strategies. In this way, JICA is building a new import-export market for Japanese investors. The hope is that private sector actors will now follow and make long-term commitments to the country. If they do, Mozambique and Kenya could emerge as major lynchpins for Japanese investment on the continent.

This is the fourth in a series of reports related to the Japan Foundation’s Kakehashi Visit for Young Public Intellectuals from January 12-22, 2014. The author represented SOAS, University of London and the Federation of American Scientists as part of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders delegation.

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