Editor’s Note: This is the 26th installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competitors — military, financial, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally among China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.


Italy not too long ago became the very first key European economy to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the huge plan to finance and create “connectivity” infrastructure across Eurasia. This improvement served as a reminder that the initiative remains a key supply of controversy even as it could cement China’s status as the center of gravity of the planet economy for decades.

Nevertheless, although China seeks to extend the Belt and Road Initiative to new members and fend off issues about its lending practices, it faces a capable rival in its personal backyard for infrastructure investment in South and Southeast Asia. For the previous seven years, Japan has competed against the Chinese initiative, not only by reforming its lending practices and rising funding for improvement help, but also by articulating a vision for what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has known as “quality” infrastructure investment and searching for international partners to advance these principles.

Japan has acknowledged that it can’t protect against China from utilizing its financial may well to assist the region’s middle-revenue nations meet their infrastructure requires. But by articulating new principles for investment, enlisting new partners, and bolstering its economic commitments, Japan has created an option to the Belt and Road Initiative that could limit establishing countries’ dependence on Chinese lending. These efforts could even influence China’s personal practices, as Japan has created its good quality infrastructure plan the basis for bilateral improvement cooperation with China.

Abe’s strategy to meeting Asia’s “infrastructure gap” appears increasingly like the gold typical, producing Japan an important player in financing and developing the infrastructure Asia requires to develop. Japan’s strategies should really serve as a model for U.S. policymakers for extra constructive financial engagement in the area, which will be essential if the United States is going to have staying energy in the competitors for influence with China.

Japan and regional improvement

Decades ahead of the current vogue for financial statecraft, Japan pioneered the use of foreign investment and improvement help to advance its national interests. Considering that Japan emerged from the U.S. occupation right after Planet War II, it has utilized the tools of financial diplomacy to market the improvement of non-communist Asia in order to strengthen its personal financial prospects. Japan’s postwar strategy to reparations, official improvement help, and public-private investment in Asia’s establishing nations arguably anticipated what China is attempting to achieve by means of the Belt and Road Initiative. Tokyo recognized that advertising industrialization in Asia’s significantly less-created nations — especially by developing power and connectivity infrastructure — could build marketplace possibilities for Japanese firms, strengthen political influence in strategically beneficial nations, and facilitate resource-poor Japan’s access to power and other all-natural sources necessary to fuel higher-speed development. As articulated in the “flying geese paradigm” of improvement, Japan would assist its neighbors transition to extra profitable industrial sectors and, in the course of action, develop wealthier itself.

When Japan’s “lost decades” and China’s rise have led most observers to overlook Japan’s function in Southeast and South Asia, the nation has remained an essential supply of improvement help, public lending, and private investment across the area, especially as Japanese corporations have extended their provide chains deeper into Asia. At the finish of 2016, Japan’s stock of foreign direct investment in key Asian economies (excluding China and Hong Kong) was almost $260 billion, exceeding China’s $58.three billion. It is undeniable that Japan has increasingly had to jockey with China for higher-profile projects as China’s footprint across Southeast and South Asia has grown. But Japan’s longstanding relationships and its lengthy record of private and public investment across the area make it a worthy competitor with China.

Abe pursues “quality infrastructure” investment

Japan beat the Belt and Road to the punch not only by advancing and financing a substantial-scale Asian connectivity endeavor, but also by emphasizing the function of good quality for extra sustainable development. Japan’s economic position in Asia supplied a strong foundation for an upgraded strategy to infrastructure investment. Even ahead of President Xi Jinping unveiled what would later turn into the Belt and Road Initiative in late 2013, Abe signaled his government’s intentions to create a new strategy to infrastructure investment as component of his “Abenomics” plan.

In March 2013, the Abe administration established an advisory council to create a method for infrastructure exports and build new tools for supporting Japanese exporters. But as Japan created its method and as the scale of China’s investments became apparent, Abe started articulating a new line: “quality infrastructure.” In order to compete with China, assistance new development possibilities for Japanese corporations, and market regional improvement, the Japanese government promulgated a new set of principles to guide its public investments and its assistance for private investment although also rising the scale of its investments. “Quality” investment suggests thinking of a wide variety of aspects when producing investment choices, like environmental and social influence, debt sustainability, the security and reliability of the building, and the influence on regional employment and technical knowledge.

In 2015 and 2016, the Abe government issued a series of policy statements that amounted to a extensive new strategy to Japan’s infrastructure investment and improvement across Asia. Initial, in the February 2015 revision of Japan’s Improvement Cooperation charter, the administration known as for “quality development,” which means development that is inclusive, sustainable, and resilient. Japan would concentrate on “physical and non-physical infrastructure like that which is necessary for strengthening connectivity and the reduction of disparities each inside the area and inside person countries” and assist Southeast Asian nations escape the “middle-revenue trap,” anything China is struggling to do itself.

3 months later, the government announced the Partnership for Top quality Infrastructure, by which Japan would boost its investment in Asian infrastructure to ¥13.two trillion (roughly $116 billion in present U.S. dollars) among 2016 and 2020, a 30 % boost more than the earlier 5-year period. The partnership incorporated reforms to streamline the course of action of producing loans and deliver extra guarantees against losses to encourage private corporations to participate in infrastructure projects.

The Abe administration would additional refine this plan in 2016, when, as the chair of the G7, it unveiled the “High-Top quality Infrastructure Export Expansion Initiative.” From 2017 onward, Tokyo would almost double its annual assistance for infrastructure exports from ¥110 billion to ¥200 billion (roughly $1.eight billion in U.S. dollars), make it less complicated to safe loans denominated in yen and possibly also in euros, and boost Nippon Export and Investment Insurance’s coverage for overseas projects to 100 %.

As a outcome of these initiatives, Japan — nevertheless, right after all, the world’s third-biggest economy — remained a key option supply of improvement finance even as China ramped up the Belt and Road Initiative and stood up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As Abe himself recommended when he announced the Partnership for Top quality Infrastructure, Japan was not calling on Asian nations to reject China but rather supplying an option supply of funding (and set of principles) for filling the region’s infrastructure gap. “We should really seek ‘quality as nicely as quantity,’” he stated in May perhaps 2015. “Pursuing each ambitiously is completely suited to Asia.” In other words, as the Obama administration was struggling to preserve U.S. allies from joining China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Congress was letting the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s charter expire, Japan was opposing the Chinese initiative but also substantially upgrading its tools for financial statecraft.

Internationalizing “quality infrastructure”: co-optation, not competitors

The Abe administration has not only articulated its strategy to infrastructure finance and ramped up its lending, it has also sought to export its “quality infrastructure” notion.

Japan and India have created the notion a central theme in their bilateral connection and, increasingly, their cooperation in other nations. Abe has constructed on a longstanding affinity for India — the Indo-Pacific notion was arguably born from Abe’s “Confluence of the Two Seas” address ahead of India’s Parliament in 2007 — to forge closer political, military, and financial ties among the two Asian democracies. Developing Japanese investment in India’s economy has complemented closer hyperlinks among the two governments and India has regularly been amongst the biggest recipients of Japanese official improvement help, totaling $1.eight billion in gross disbursements in 2016.

But it was in 2017 that Tokyo and New Delhi placed “quality infrastructure” at the center of their bilateral connection. When Abe visited India for a 3-day trip that incorporated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s property province of Gujarat, Abe and Modi signed a joint statement that strongly endorsed the principles of good quality infrastructure investment. They also signed a lengthy list of memoranda concerning Japanese investments in Indian development according to these principles. These projects incorporated infrastructure improvement in India’s northeast (which, following the military confrontation among India and China at Doklam, was opposed by China) rail projects, like the Mumbai-Ahmedabad higher-speed rail and a technical help plan sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency for the National Higher Speed Rail Corporation subway projects in six key cities and power, sanitation, and “smart city” cooperation. Abe and Modi also agreed to operate with each other to use good quality infrastructure investment to integrate the Indian Ocean basin, developing up “connectivity infrastructure” to hyperlink Asia with the east coast of Africa by means of the Asia-Africa Development Corridor (though the corridor is nevertheless an abstract notion, and each governments may possibly be de-emphasizing the thought.)



Possibly counterintuitively, Japan also cooperates with China on infrastructure investment in third nations. Abe has explicitly framed his government’s talks with China on infrastructure cooperation as a bid by Japan to internationalize “quality infrastructure” principles by means of cooperation with and maybe even the conversion of skeptical partners. As Abe stated in December 2017, “Under this No cost and Open Indo-Pacific Approach, we think that we can cooperate tremendously with the Belt and Road program touted by China.” In the months due to the fact the Abe government started speaking with China about cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative, Japan has created clear that any official assistance would be restricted and conditional, dependent on projects satisfying the “quality infrastructure” principles.

As a additional indication of how Japan is ready to use cooperation with China to advance its personal priorities, the phrase “Belt and Road” has increasingly offered way in bilateral communiqués to the vaguer “cooperation in third nations.” (For instance, new autos for advertising private-sector cooperation have been offered the unwieldy names of the Committee for the Promotion of Japan-China Company Cooperation in Third Nations and the connected Japan-China Third Nation Industry Cooperation Forum.)

To be positive, advancing Japan’s vision for infrastructure investment is not the sole purpose for Abe’s outreach to China. Japanese corporations, for instance, have been especially eager to tame the intense competitors with China for huge-ticket projects and participate in lucrative Belt and Road projects. Nonetheless, Abe’s pursuit of cooperation with China highlights the reality that “internationalizing” good quality infrastructure investment is a important component of Japan’s regional improvement method. Offered the size of Asia’s infrastructure gap, if China is prepared to aspire to larger requirements that are extra sustainable fiscally, environmentally, and socially, absolutely everyone wins (though Japan could possibly face even fiercer competitors to land higher-prestige projects).

What the United States can understand from Japan

In November 2018, improvement finance institutions from Japan, the United States, and Australia signed a memorandum of understanding on infrastructure investment. In the context of Japan’s ongoing efforts to market “quality” infrastructure investment, this memorandum should really not be viewed as a bid to sharpen competitors among China and the Quad (Japan, Australia, India and the United States). Rather, it is one more step toward producing Japan’s principles the gold typical for regional improvement, especially as the United States ramps up its improvement help right after President Donald Trump signed the Far better Utilization of Investments Major to Improvement (Construct) Act. As soon as implemented, the legislation would build a new United States International Improvement Finance Corporation (USIDFC) to streamline the management of improvement finance. As the United States increases its lending and pursues new possibilities for cooperation with other Indo-Pacific democracies on infrastructure improvement, there are 3 lessons the Trump administration can understand from Japan.

Initial, as the Construct Act acknowledges, it is not possible to beat anything with nothing at all. If the United States desires to deliver Asian nations with an option to Chinese investment, it requires to be prepared to invest the revenue, irrespective of whether straight on loans and equity investments in emerging-marketplace economies or indirectly on insurance coverage to private firms to reduce the dangers of investment. The new USIDFC will have $60 billion to invest, up from the $29 billion allocated to its predecessor, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, even though not all of this will go to Asian projects. When these funds may possibly not match the sources China has committed to overseas investment, the funding does signal that the U.S. government, like Congress, recognizes that it requires to be prepared to commit extra public revenue to Asia’s infrastructure gap.

Second, the United States, like Japan, should really articulate the principles that will guide its commitment to the area rather than launching rhetorical broadsides against the Belt and Road Initiative. The backlash against the initiative across the area suggests that China’s neighbors are capable of figuring out the dangers and dangers of Chinese investment — and pushing back against them — for themselves. China may possibly currently be scaling back its ambitions in the face of criticism at property and in borrowing nations. The United States should really take this as an chance to articulate its personal principles and supply Asia’s middle-revenue nations a meaningful decision with out forcing them to choose a side.

Lastly, Japan’s engagement with China to encourage it to embrace larger requirements suggests that at least in some places, it is nevertheless acceptable to cooperate with China to nudge it toward acting as a “responsible stakeholder.” Notwithstanding the issues about China’s lending practices, Chinese investment can make a true distinction for poor and middle-revenue nations, and in any case it is unlikely that the United States and its allies could push China out of improvement finance altogether. Hence, the United States should really be extra welcoming of China’s willingness to market the financial improvement of its neighbors and seek possibilities to shape its improvement method away from financially unsustainable, environmentally dangerous, and economically dubious investments. Possibly the United states and other nations will only be in a position to influence China’s efforts on the margins, but, as Japan shows, even restricted engagement could challenge China and its firms to aspire to larger requirements.

Each the Construct Act and the November U.S.-Japan-Australia memorandum recommend that the Trump administration is increasingly prepared to compete with China by supplying Asian nations extra freedom of action as they pursue financial improvement. Certainly, the United States can and should really upgrade its strategy to infrastructure investment and improvement across the Indo-Pacific area. But the reality is that Japan, with its willingness to invest and its in depth relationships across South and Southeast Asia, will probably continue to be the Quad member spearheading efforts to market good quality infrastructure investment. Nonetheless, if the United States can understand from the Abe administration’s instance, it may possibly make cooperation among the United States and its regional partners extra powerful as American leaders seek to market financial improvement in the Indo-Pacific area in a free of charge, open, and sustainable manner.



Tobias Harris is a senior vice president and Japan analyst at CEO advisory firm Teneo and economy, trade, and enterprise fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.


Image: Workplace of the Prime Minister of Japan