Japan lavished ?45 billion (US$410 million) in fresh aid to Pacific Island nations at a leaders' summit yesterday and walked away with unified support for Tokyo's bid to join the UN Security Council.
The offer marks a big jump in Japanese aid in what some see as a growing battle of dollar diplomacy with China to hold sway over the region. China, which opposes Japan's UN aspirations, last month offered millions of dollars in aid to its Pacific allies.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced the package yesterday at the end of a two-day meeting of Pacific leaders in Okinawa, winning dearly needed backing for Japan's beleaguered push for a Security Council seat.
"We in the Pacific have given our support to Japan," said Michael Somare, prime minister of Papua New Guinea and co-chair of the Pacific Island summit. "Japan has made a substantial contribution, not only in the region, but in international communities."
Friendships with the far-flung and impoverished Pacific states are an easy way for governments to win backing at international venues like the UN. The countries have tiny populations, meaning relatively small amounts of aid can go far, but they still wield one vote, the same as larger countries.
Together, the Pacific Island nations attending the Okinawa summit comprise only a fraction of the world's population but hold 14 UN votes, or about 7 percent of the total.
Environmentalists meanwhile accuse Japan of using Pacific aid to buy pro-whaling votes at the International Whaling Commission, a charge Japan denies.
"The Foreign Ministry has been very keen on using aid strategically," said political analyst Shigenori Okazaki. "Each of these countries has one vote."
Japan says its aid is about creating a more stable and prosperous region, not about jousting with China, a country that only recently got into the overseas aid business.
Koizumi said he welcomed China's development help to the region.
"I would not take that as a threat," Koizumi said. "If China and other countries wish to provide assistance and can provide assistance to various developing countries, fine. Please do so by all means."
Somare echoed the sentiment that Japan's aid had nothing to do with China.
"I don't think it should be seen as competing for influence in the region," he said. "I think Pacific Island people are capable of making their own decisions."
Just last month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) jetted to the South Pacific and pledged 3 billion yuan (US$374 million) in aid to countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. The aid targeted mining, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aviation.
China has typically used the aid to win support for Beijing over Taiwan. But China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is also trying to block momentum for a seat for Tokyo, saying Japan has not properly atoned for its militaristic past.
Koizumi called Japan's aid package and the island nations' backing in the Security Council spat "an important milestone for Japan's foreign policy."
The aid will target education, economic development, health care, environmental protection and disaster mitigation projects, like early warning systems for tsunamis. It will also fund the training of thousands of civil servants.
The leaders also discussed recent unrest in the Solomon Islands and agreed to cooperate on fostering good governance in the region, while cracking down on international crime and terrorism.
Japan said it would divvy the aid among the countries according to needs and based upon the review of project proposals.
Japan has hosted the Pacific Islands four times since 1997, but Tokyo announced no new aid packages at the last summit in 2003.
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