Japan’s Burma Policy: Changes to Come? – The Irrawaddy

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NEWS ANALYSIS – SIMON ROUGHNEEN
Japan's PM Taro Aso leaves his final news conference on Sept 16 (Reuters)

Japan's PM Taro Aso leaves his final news conference on Sept 16 (Reuters)

The Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) landmark win in the recent Japanese election has prompted much speculation about the incoming administration’s foreign policy.

China’s rise, US economic difficulties, North Korea’s unpredictable bellicosity and Asia’s growing share of global GDP means that Tokyo has to deal with many challenges and opportunities.

Japan’s economy has stagnated since 1990, about the same time that Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the last election held in Burma.

Japan’s economy contracted 15.2 percent in the first quarter of 2009—the fastest pace since records began in 1955 and the fourth straight quarter of negative growth. Exports plunged 26 percent in that quarter, the steepest decline on record. The latest numbers show the vulnerability of a country reliant on international trade to fuel growth, with the Chinese market central to this strategy.

While Asia’s importance in Tokyo’s political and economic considerations will increase, Japan remains dependent on the US for security and to a large extent it will follow US foreign policy trends.

That said, the DPJ has already indicated that it could alter Japan’s dependent defense relationship with the US. However, it remains unclear how it would achieve this without compromising Japanese security, as the party seems unlikely to add any bite to Japan’s official pacifism.

With all these conundrums in mind, Burma doubtless will remain well down its list of international issues or bilateral relationships. It remains to be seen if the new Japanese administration will change its approach to Burma, even as the US comes to the end of its Burma policy review.

China’s rise has eclipsed Japan in Western public perceptions of where power lies in Asia, though the Japanese economy remains the world’s second-largest, after the US.

One place where reality matches perception is Burma, a sea-change that has taken place over the past two decades. While nowadays China is the main commercial-diplomatic partner for Snr-Gen Than Shwe, this was not the case in the past, when China supported Burma’s Communist rebels.

Before invading British-ruled Burma in 1942, Japan helped foster a nationalist movement in Burma, training and arming independence hero Aung San’s (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) legendary “thirty comrades,”—later the core of the Burma Independence Army.

Prior to the 1988 student-led, pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma, Japan was probably the junta’s main economic partner. By 1980, Burma was the fourth-largest recipient of Japanese overseas aid, which peaked at US $244 million in 1986, or 6.3 percent of all Japanese overseas assistance.

Meanwhile Burma’s economy deteriorated rapidly, a contributory factor to the 1988 protests, suggesting that the aid did little to help ordinary Burmese. Japanese leverage on the junta was limited, however, as it lacked a UN Security Council vote which Beijing has wielded many times in the junta’s defense in recent years.

Donald Seekins, who teaches at Meio University in Japan and is the author of “Burma and Japan since 1940: From Co-prosperity to Quiet Dialogue,” said that business interests drove Japan’s foreign assistance to Burma.

“They saw the post-socialist economy as a big opportunity and didn’t want to be crowded out of the Burma market by other Asian countries, especially Singapore, South Korea and China,” he said.

Despite shying from public support of the junta after 1988, Japan has refused to join Western sanctions and continues to provide bilateral aid to what NGO Transparency International ranks as one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

According to Yuki Akimoto, the director of BurmaInfo (Japan), “Japan has been the largest donor to Burma among OECD countries every year since 1979 and aid levels were not lowered even after the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” when a Japanese journalist, Kenji Nagai, was killed.”

Burmese Agriculture and Irrigation Minister Maj-Gen Htay Oo’s visited Japan in August, in the final days of the LDP administration and just days after the culmination of the trial which saw Aung San Suu Kyi put back under house arrest.

While Japan joined calls for Suu Kyi to be released, it has generally refrained from the blunt criticisms issued by the US and Europeans.

Tokyo has preferred what Seekins terms “quiet dialogue”—reassuring the junta that while Japan feels compelled to emulate Western rhetoric on human rights issues from time to time, it wants to retain economic ties with Burma.

While bureaucrats in Japan’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs will retain considerable influence on policy, irrespective of who is in office, Htay Oo’s week-long visit to Japan may have been an attempt to learn what the DPJ might do once in power, given that the trip came just days before the Japanese election.

Reading those tea leaves, however, is difficult. However, Htay Oo doubtless knew in advance that incoming Prime Minister Hatoyama has some strong views on Burma.

Yuki Akamoto told The Irrawaddy that Hatoyama is a long-time supporter of Suu Kyi and democratization in Burma, and he has been an officer of the Parliamentary League to Promote Democracy in Burma which has been critical of the regime and Japan’s policy.

How this translates into policy, however, remains to be seen. With the US apparently looking for ways to engage with the junta, Japan is unlikely to take a harder line, given that it digressed from the US-led sanctions first implemented under President Clinton in 1997.

The US rationale for engagement partly stems from the view that economic sanctions have merely enabled less-scrupulous investors and governments to obtain access to Burmese oil, gas, gems and timber without any adverse effect on the junta’s control of Burma. Japan has more or less been saying this all along.

Tokyo is wary of China’s rise, so it seems unlikely that Japan will advocate a policy that could push Burma closer to China. Going forward, this will give Beijing an easier run at Burma’s resources.

Moreover, China sees Burma not only as a resource goldmine, but as a vital component in its strategic power projection, as China can acquire overland access to the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia though Burma.

At the same time, however, if the US continues to press for democracy in Burma—here it must be noted that the Obama administration has shied away from pro-democracy rhetoric in its foreign policy to date—then Japan will follow suit to some degree, irrespective of the grumblings about the US expressed in the DPJ’s pre-election propaganda.

Therefore, as Donald Seekins puts it, it is unlikely “that there will be much change from the LDP-era’s rather ambiguous Burma policy.”

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