• Maria Thaemar C. Tana

Changes and Continuities in Japan’s Peacebuilding in Mindanao

Japan International Cooperation Agency and National Economic Development Authority signed a 771 yen grant aid to improve energy distribution in conflict stricken Mindanao.

Photo Source: JICA

In recent years, Japan’s foreign and security policies have expanded significantly, manifested in several key developments, particularly in the military domain, in the post-9/11 period. Japan’s relations with its neighbors in Southeast Asia have also become more strategic. Given China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea, Japan’s strategic interests in the area, and its territorial disputes with China, it has developed a more proactive regional policy that departs from its traditional reluctance to engage in politico-military affairs of the region. This includes strengthening multilateral security institutions, the “strategic” use of Official Development Assistance (ODA), and the establishment of military agreements and strategic partnerships with key ASEAN states like Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. These show that Japan is now more actively engaged in different forms of cooperation amid growing regional threats. It has moved beyond economics to assume a more proactive role in regional affairs.

From the realist point of view, the changes in Japan’s security practices result from changes in material factors and the systemic distribution of power – specifically, the military and economic rise of China and the relative decline of the United States. Realists would further argue that given the increasingly restrictive strategic environment, Japan will continue to move towards becoming a more assertive military power. Some observers even note that Japan is now at the brink of abandoning many of the key elements of the Yoshida Doctrine. But while it is true that most of the post-war restrictions have unraveled and/or incrementally transformed, the key institutional features of and constraints on Japan’s foreign policy remain in place. The Mindanao case, for instance, demonstrates that despite Japan’s recent foreign policy activism, its peacebuilding program in the Bangsamoro region in the Southern Philippines remains essentially the same. Japan continues to rely on established institutional frameworks that operate based on “human security,” a concept that was officially adopted by the Japanese government in the 1990s and was subsequently identified as a “pillar” of foreign policy but has recently appeared to have taken a backseat to strategic calculations. However, it is also important to note that Japan’s peacebuilding in Mindanao is not static. It has undergone incremental changes alongside shifts in its security policy.

The question, then, is: how do the changing security environment, Japan’s expanded role in regional security affairs, and its deepening strategic relations with the Philippines affect its Mindanao peacebuilding policy and practice? It can be argued that while the critical institutional features of Japan’s post-war policies, which emphasize the centrality of civilian power and the use of non-military foreign policy instruments, are retained, Japan’s peacebuilding policy and practice in Mindanao have been showing signs of evolving.

On the one hand, Japan’s human security approach to peacebuilding, which stresses prevention and long-term development through ODA, endures because it is already self-reinforcing and generating “positive feedback” (defined as a process that yields increasing returns). Japan’s peacebuilding in Mindanao is considered one of the most successful cases of its peacebuilding for human security. Interviews with former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in Buldon, Maguindanao, where the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) initiates up-land rice cultivation projects and conducts agricultural training and seminars, revealed that they were generally appreciative of Japan’s assistance and that the ODA from Japan (grants, loans, and technical assistance) contributed positively to the promotion of peace in the conflict-affected areas. The current peacebuilding program also supports Japan’s key diplomatic goals to increase its presence in the region and to contribute to Asia’s peace and prosperity. As Japan, then, continues to rely on ODA and “soft” human security approaches to promote peacebuilding and, consequently, its interests in Mindanao, the costs of switching to another strategy are prohibitively high.

On the other hand, Japan is moving beyond its traditional role of a mere aid provider, slowly and incrementally widening the scope of its peacebuilding activities. It is important to note that Japan has been providing ODA to Mindanao since 1989 but it was limited to non-conflict areas like Davao and Cagayan de Oro and, until 2002, it was never intended to facilitate peace through the poverty reduction. A significant change in Japan’s engagement occurred after it joined the International Monitoring Team (IMT) in 2006, which marked Japan’s early involvement in the peace process before a peace agreement was signed, as well as Japan’s cooperation with both the Philippine government and the MILF. The gradual and steady expansion of Japan’s political role in the Mindanao peacebuilding is also evident in its efforts to facilitate peace talks and carry out peacebuilding activities beyond the conventional development assistance model. Participation in the IMT, the International Contact Group (ICG), and Consolidation of Peace (COP) seminars, as well as the widening of the scope of JICA’s assistance to include governance, security, and conflict prevention, show that Japan has moved beyond the “freedom from want” development approach to human security and is now contributing more actively under the “freedom from fear” dimension. It can even be argued that the recent developments signify Japan’s gradual move towards R2P (Responsibility to Protect) despite its apparent reluctance to acknowledge the doctrine officially. Its motives, aims, and programs for peacebuilding in Mindanao reflect the goals of R2P: it fulfills the responsibilities to prevent and rebuild, which are consistent with R2P’s Pillar Two that holds that the international community is responsible for encouraging and assisting individual states in meeting their commitment to protecting their own populations. Likewise, IMT’s aims and means are consistent with R2P’s Pillar Three, which states that the international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means, including preventive diplomacy, economic sanctions and embargoes, fact-finding missions, civilian defense missions, and monitoring. Hence, through its participation in the IMT, Japan is also fulfilling this commitment.

It can thus be concluded that while Japan is still generally demonstrating continuities in its peacebuilding policy, small, slow, and gradual changes have also taken place. Furthermore, contrary to realist assumptions, these changes are not solely responses to the emergence of new threats and the highly restrictive external environment but are more endogenous. The changes in its peacebuilding policy and practice in Mindanao are due to the changes within Japan’s aid and foreign policy institutions themselves (i.e., the ODA Charter’s revisions in 2003 and 2015 and JICA’s 2003 and 2008 reforms) and how human security, peacebuilding, and Japan’s security interests and foreign policy goals are operationally linked in foreign policy discourses. Hence, as Japan’s overall foreign policy evolved, so did its human security policy, adapting to changes but still retaining its core elements, emphasizing the protection and empowerment of individuals through non-military assistance, sustainable peacebuilding, and human-centered development.

The Mindanao case also proves that despite Japan’s progress toward military “normalization,” it will still retain the basic features of its traditional non-military diplomacy and sustain its image as a “global civilian power.” Domestic norms still constrain the Japanese government and its leaders, and as domestic institutions are essentially path-dependent, it would be challenging to implement new policies, especially those that radically depart from conventional approaches, without a compelling reason. The form and scope of Japanese foreign policy change in response to current international realities, but they will change slowly and gradually within normative and institutional limits and frameworks.


Dr. Maria Thaemar C. Tana is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines Diliman.

129 views0 comments