Japan has traditionally been uncomfortable bringing values to the forefront of foreign policy and has thus not made supporting democracy abroad a focus of its foreign aid. However, Japan’s hesitancy in this respect appears to have lessened in recent years. Starting in the early 2000s, administrations led by the Liberal Democratic Party have increasingly emphasized values-based diplomacy. Today, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese government has made support for democracy a centerpiece of its public statements and official documents on foreign policy. But in practice, Japanese democracy support still remains relatively thin in terms of substance.

Still, the changed tone of Japanese foreign policy is significant. A striking feature of the Abe administration’s rhetorical shift toward democracy support is how strongly this new approach is both driven and constrained by geopolitical considerations. The reorientation of Japanese foreign policy is a response to the changing balance of power in East Asia and the rise of China in particular, and yet these factors also ensure that Japan’s commitment to values-based diplomacy will be sharply limited.

Japan’s Increasing Emphasis on Democracy Support

Over the past decade, there has been a considerable change in Japan’s foreign policy position on democracy support. Its 1992 Official Development Assistance (ODA) Charter committed the country to provide foreign aid in a manner that promotes democracy abroad. However, in practice, democracy support remained peripheral to Japan’s foreign policy until the mid-2000s.

It was during the first Abe administration, which began in 2006, that Japan began to emphasize democracy support in its foreign policy. Then foreign minister Taro Aso stated that Japan would support the stability and prosperity of countries that share its values, such as human rights, liberalism, the rule of law, and democracy, with the aim of creating an “arc of freedom and prosperity” in the wider Asian region.

Japan’s shift toward democracy support complemented other attempts to strengthen the country’s diplomatic relations with major democracies in the Asia-Pacific region, such as an endeavor to increase multilateral cooperation with Australia and India. Until recently, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus Three framework, which includes Japan, China, and South Korea as well as the ten ASEAN member countries, was one of the main arenas for negotiations in Asia. Beginning in the early 2000s, Japanese governments actively worked to bring Australia, India, and New Zealand into the framework. In addition, Japan concluded joint declarations on security cooperation with Australia and India in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

But while Abe and Aso, who became prime minister in 2008, strengthened diplomatic ties with established democratic countries in Asia, their assistance to new and emerging democracies remained somewhat marginal. There was weak domestic support for such engagement, and the brevity of the two administrations—Abe served only from 2006 to 2007, and Aso served from 2008 to 2009—hindered a more proactive democracy promotion policy. In addition, Abe and Aso faced opposition from China, long a factor in keeping Japan from promoting democracy in the region. Indeed, the fear of provoking China is why previous Japanese administrations had eschewed assertive values-based diplomacy.

The second Abe administration, which came to power in December 2012, has taken Japan’s policy of democracy support a step further. The 2012 ODA white paper, which was released in March 2013, not only expressed Japan’s intention to bolster democracy abroad but also prioritized it above traditional focuses of Japanese foreign aid such as human security and hard infrastructure assistance. Stating that “expanding support for countries that share strategic interests and the universal values of freedom and democracy with Japan is crucial in attaining a free, prosperous, and stable international community with the goal of securing peace and stability in developing countries,” the white paper enshrined democracy support as the first and foremost principle of the country’s foreign engagement.

Senior officials have played an influential role in Japan’s shift toward a values-based foreign policy. In particular, Shotaro Yachi, director of the newly established National Security Council of Japan, first suggested the idea of the arc of freedom and prosperity to then foreign minister Aso in 2006. Nobukatsu Kanehara, assistant chief cabinet secretary and vice director of the National Security Council, has also constantly advocated for creating foreign policies that advance universal values.1

In addition, there appears to be considerable support among Japanese politicians for a foreign policy built on democratic values and principles. In May 2007, for example, members of the Japanese National Diet created the Association for the Promotion of Values-Based Diplomacy (kachikan gaiko wo suishin suru giin no kai). The association now includes 40–50 relatively conservative Liberal Democratic Party members with close ties to Abe.

Rising China as the Driving Factor

The most significant reason behind the reorientation of Japanese foreign policy is the rise of China, whose military budget surpassed Japan’s in the mid-2000s. Beijing’s increasing military power has had a significant impact on great-power politics in Asia and has particularly affected Japan, the traditional great power in the region.

Japan, which has been militarily restrained since the end of World War II by a constitution that only allows it to use force for defensive purposes, fears that the expansion of Chinese military capabilities may degrade its political influence in the region. The Japanese government’s decision to begin highlighting values-based diplomacy in its foreign policy was intended to increase the country’s political influence, particularly in Asia. Japan saw democracy support as a useful tool for counterbalancing China’s influence.

The Japanese government did not explicitly present its values-based diplomacy as a containment strategy. In launching the arc of freedom and prosperity, Aso did not mention China as a target of the new policy. To the contrary, he emphasized Japan’s desire to strengthen its ties with Beijing. However, the fact that the proposed arc would cover the regions surrounding China—the Japanese government defined it as “stretching from Northeast Asia to Central Asia and the Caucasus, Turkey, Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states”—meant that many interpreted it as just such a containment strategy. Not surprisingly, China expressed hostility toward the initiative.

But Chinese opposition did not convince Japan to abandon its new approach, especially after 2010—a turning point in relations between the two countries. In that year, China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s, an event that had a symbolic impact in Japan, reminding its leaders that the power shift in the region was real. Chinese foreign policy also started to become more assertive than it had previously been. The Chinese government declared that the East China Sea, where the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (which are claimed by both Japan and China) are located, was a “core interest” for Chinese national security.

High-level officials in the current Abe administration stress that the era of what former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping called tao guang yang hui—“keeping a low profile”—has ended. Instead, a new era of greater foreign policy assertiveness has begun in China. In the eyes of Japanese leaders, this increased assertiveness and its potentially destabilizing effect on regional security have made it even more crucial for Japan to further expand its political influence to maintain regional stability.2

Thus, the second Abe administration has been more explicit than previous governments about its intention to expand Japan’s influence through values-based diplomacy. Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary Kanehara argues that Japan’s strategic agenda should entail engaging with a rising China in a manner that will induce it to become a responsible power. According to him, values-based diplomacy is a means to achieve this goal and thus necessary for Japan’s security and prosperity.3

But although the Japanese government formally claims to want a positive relationship with China based on common strategic interests, Abe has been actively visiting Southeast Asian countries, seeking to create a political counterbalance to rising Chinese power.

Democracy Support for Asian Countries

Japan’s desire to maintain its political power, the overriding geostrategic imperative behind Japanese democracy support, is evident in its approach to foreign aid in various countries around the region.

In Myanmar, for example, Japan has a vital interest in nurturing friendly relations to increase its political and economic clout in the country. This is particularly true because Myanmar, which is undergoing a process of democratic reform, is currently attempting to restrain Chinese influence, long a dominant force in the country. Japan faces some opposition in Myanmar because it provided humanitarian aid to the military junta that ruled the country until 2011, a move that provoked criticism by Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD), an opposition party led by popular politician Aung San Suu Kyi. Given the high probability that the NLD will win a greater number of seats in the next parliamentary election, Japan has been active in supporting democratic governance in Myanmar to build friendly relations with the party.4

Furthermore, Japan is investing a substantial amount of ODA in rebuilding Myanmar’s economic infrastructure. Political scientist and Japan expert Kent Calder argues that if Japan can help create a transit corridor through Myanmar, this could counterbalance China’s influence over Pakistan.5

Japan’s calls for democratization in Myanmar began several years ago. During an October 2009 summit between Japan and the states of the Mekong River region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam), Japan insisted that the chair’s statement following the meeting of foreign ministers include language calling for democratization in Myanmar despite staunch opposition from the Myanmar government.6 After the liberalization process began in 2011, Japan started assisting Myanmar on the rule of law and economic reform through a series of seminars, and in November 2013 it initiated a legal capacity building project.

Beyond Myanmar, however, Japan’s support for democracy in the region remains limited. It shies away from criticizing countries in Indochina for their lack of democratic reforms and robust human rights protections.

In Vietnam, for example, the Japanese government did not release a statement when Nguyen Dan Que, a well-known prodemocracy activist, was detained by the Vietnamese government after calling for a democratization movement along the lines of the 2010–2011 Jasmine Revolution that overthrew Tunisia’s president. In Cambodia, despite allegations of widespread electoral fraud in a general election held in July 2013, the Japanese government made an official statement that the election was held smoothly and peacefully. And in Thailand, where antigovernment demonstrations have been taking place for months, the Japanese government has adopted a restrained tone in expressing its concern. In a December 2013 statement, it did not condemn those who had turned to violence in the ongoing protests.

Additionally, Japan has refrained from strongly supporting Chinese civil society in its struggle for democracy. While there have been dialogues with, and aid for, Chinese NGOs in such fields as assistance for people with disabilities, environmental protection, and poverty reduction, Japanese support for Chinese NGOs has been limited to issues that are not politically charged. True, tackling these issues requires governmental transparency and better human rights protection, so Japanese support can be said to indirectly support democracy and human rights. However, the amount of aid Japan provides for such civil society organizations remains small.

Indeed, Japan has been reluctant to provide direct support to civil society actors in general. A report from the Japan International Cooperation Agency states that providing direct support for NGOs entails bypassing state institutions, which could weaken citizens’ trust in, and the accountability of, the government and is therefore not desirable.7 Moreover, the absence of foundations such as the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which is administered as a private organization but funded primarily by the U.S. government, makes it difficult for Japan to assist civil society actors through quasi-private channels.

Its engagement with regional countries suggests that Japan plans to implement its increasing emphasis on democracy support very selectively. It seems the country intends to expand its foreign aid for states undergoing democratization and democracy consolidation processes only in areas that are not directly related to the democratic system per se. The Japanese government seems to believe that providing foreign aid in socioeconomic sectors can help stabilize recipient countries socially and economically, which in turn can foster an environment suitable for further democratization. While Japan might increase its direct democracy support as well, that assistance will remain secondary to its support for socioeconomic development.

A Pragmatic Approach

Despite the reorientation in Japanese foreign policy over the past decade and the country’s increased emphasis on international democracy support, in practice democratic norms and principles have not become a major feature of Japan’s engagement in the region or beyond. Instead, Japan is playing the classic realist power game with China, with democracy support serving as one tool in its foreign policy toolbox.

This brand of realpolitik means that although the Japanese government claims to promote democracy abroad, this support tends to be limited to coalition building among democratic countries. It also means that Japan generally does not provide assistance for democratization and democratic consolidation.

Japan’s view of democracy assistance as an instrument to help advance its power in the face of a rising China means that tangible and short-term interests predominate. Japan is thus reluctant to criticize Asian countries about a lack of democratic reform for fear of risking friendly relations with them.

If Japan intends to maintain and strengthen cooperation with regional governments to counter China, then it must make its support more attractive to these governments than Chinese inducements. Therefore, strategic calculations generally lead Japan to refrain from promoting democracy in countries whose governments resist political reform. As a result, Japan’s heightened focus on democracy assistance in its foreign policy is both driven and limited by geopolitical concerns.

The author is grateful to Richard Youngs and Thomas Carothers for their helpful comments and editing.

The Carnegie Endowment gratefully acknowledges support from the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development that helped make this publication possible.


1  Hiroyuki Akita, Hideaki Kaneda, Tomohiko Taniguchi, and Shotaro Yachi, “Toward A Comprehensive U.S.-Japan Security Cooperation,” Shotaro Yachi, ed., Japanese Diplomacy and Comprehensive Security (in Japanese), Tokyo: Wedge, 2011, 391; “Reporter Memo Symposium: Changing America, Unchanging America (in Japanese),” Yomiuri Shimbun, November 24, 2008.

2  The National Institute for Defense Studies, East Asian Strategic Review 2011, Tokyo: The National Institute for Defense Studies, 2011; Hiroyuki Akita, Hideaki Kaneda, Tomohiko Taniguchi, and Shotaro Yachi, “Toward A Comprehensive US-Japan Security Cooperation,” Yachi, op.cit., 388-454.

3  Nobukatsu Kanehara, “New Power Balance and Japanese Diplomacy,” Ibid., 80–88.

4  “Suu Kyi as the “Next President” is Realistic in Anticipation of the Next Election (in Japanese),” Yomiuri Shimbun, April 18, 2013.

5  “Japan-US Cooperation: Dialogue with Asia by Kent Calder” (in Japanese),” Yomiuri Shimbun, July 24, 2013.

6  “Does DPJ Get Across to Myanmar?” (in Japanese), Asahi Shimbun, October 3, 2009.

7  Japan International Cooperation Agency, Governance Assistance at JICA: Creation of Democratic Institutions, Improvement of Administrative Functions, and Legal Assistance (Japanese), Tokyo: JICA, 2004, pages 3 and 19.