By Kei Ishinabe
Japan is mulling a halt to economic aid for Myanmar, although the government hopes to avoid that, afraid that a hardline approach in the vein of Western nations would push Myanmar further toward China. Keeping silent, however, would invite criticism from the international community as the military coup denies the shared values of democracy and human rights, which are also the foundation of Japanese diplomacy. The Japanese government remains in touch with Myanmar’s military in hopes of finding a path to return to civilian control, while preparing itself for making a “hard decision,” in the words of a senior Foreign Ministry official.
“Japan has multiple channels of communication in Myanmar, including with its military,” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said during a press conference on Feb. 5. “We will strongly urge Myanmar’s military to restore democratic governance to the country as soon as possible.” Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar Ichiro Maruyama is leading a team of negotiators.
In the past, during Myanmar’s military regime that began in 1988, the Japanese government similarly kept ties with the nation. Among the G7 member countries, Japan has been the most viable channel of communication with Myanmar’s military. Only last August, Motegi met with military chief Min Aung Hlaing, who now holds power. The U.S. hopes that Japan’s ties with the country will help ease tensions.
The Japanese government favors dialogue and is unwilling to join sanctions the U.S. and others have proposed. Japan’s current priority is promoting the free and open Indo-Pacific initiative and containing China’s expansion. For these to succeed, it is crucial that the initiative includes partners as well as countries that are neutral or even pro-China. Myanmar is one such country. A hardline approach by Japan would only deepen Myanmar’s dependence on China.
“The loss of Japan’s unique relationship with Myanmar would undermine Japan’s China strategy,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. Another said, “We are preparing [punitive] measures. But the best outcome would be not using them.”
If the local situation deteriorates further, possibly with violent crackdowns on the demonstrators, the Japanese government would no longer be able to remain quiet. Japan would need to “make a decision on its own volition,” according to a senior MOFA official, apart from global opinion or the Biden administration’s strong posture toward human rights violations. “Our priority is continuing a dialogue with Myanmar’s military, but it goes without saying that we will take necessary measures if needed,” Motegi said.
Japan doesn’t have a law that allows for imposing sanctions on foreign nationals based on human rights abuses. This leaves either halting economic assistance or cutting back aid to Myanmar as the only realistic options.