Japan’s Foreign Policy Towards Afghanistan

By: Ali Asghar Amiri

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan Yoshimasa Hayashi’s statement about engagement with the Taliban at the Group of 7 conferences on April 18, 2023, raised the question of what kind of approach Japan follows in Afghanistan. To answer this question, it is necessary to first understand the general approach of Japan’s foreign policy after World War II, then to review the bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Japan after 2001, and the current approach of Japan’s policy towards Afghanistan and its consequences.

Japan’s Foreign Policy after World War II

After the Second World War, Japan’s foreign policy was influenced by the post-war constitution, and according to Article 9 of the constitution, Japan cannot participate in any kind of military activity, based on which Japan is not allowed to engage in overseas military activities except for the right of self-defense. But from the beginning, Japan formulated its foreign policy based on the principle of humanitarian diplomacy and development cooperation, thus becoming the biggest donor to developing countries. With this foreign policy approach, Japan was able to expand the level of its participation in economic development in the Asia and Pacific region and improve its national security in the region. The Constitution is the most important source of Japan’s foreign policy, which has imposed restrictions on the country in most cases, and therefore, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan is seeking to amend Article 9 of the constitution at the initiative of Shinzo Abe, the late and former Prime Minister of Japan. The external sources of Japan’s foreign policy rely on treaties, international commitments, alliances with the United States and Western countries, and international and regional developments. According to international and regional developments, Japan’s peace-oriented foreign policy has recently changed and is seeking a greater and more effective role in the region and the world.

The current Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida follows the policies of Shinzo Abe and wants a more active role in the region. He is seeking to resolve the disputes with South Korea in order to create a common axis in the region to deal with the domination of China and the threats of North Korea. Moreover, he is still united and aligned with Western countries on the issue of Ukraine. In general, Japan’s foreign policy is intertwined with international developments with the constant principle of humanitarian diplomacy.

Japan’s Cooperation with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan after 2001

Although the historical background of the relations between the two countries dates back to 1931, this article only covers the relations between the two countries after the Bonn Conference in 2001.

After the September 11 incident, Japan was one of the first countries to join the international anti-terrorism coalition. providing logistical facilities to the coalition forces in the U.S. war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and simultaneously, it took an active and effective role in other fields as well. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Japan held the Tokyo Conference in order to attract international aid to Afghanistan in 2002, during which it took the leadership of international aid to Afghanistan. Japan established very friendly relations with Afghanistan in the last twenty years and was considered the second largest donor to Afghanistan and hosted the second conference on attracting international aid to Afghanistan in 2012.

The embassies of both countries were reopened in 2002 in Kabul and Tokyo. Japan’s active presence was accompanied by the presence of US-led international coalition forces in Afghanistan, and therefore, many considered it as following US policies. During the last twenty years, Japan pledged more than 9 billion dollars to Afghanistan, of which more than 7 billion dollars were used. Japan’s aid to Afghanistan was among the most effective aid of the international community, which was focused on the principle of economic self-sufficiency in Afghanistan, and it believed that empowering the Afghan people would lead to self-sufficiency. Sadata Ogata, the former president of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), always used this term “Instead of giving fish, people should be taught how to grow fish.” When the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, this country considered the logistical aid to the international coalition to be against the Japanese constitution and thus abolished it. Instead, this country pledged 5 billion dollars in economic aid to Afghanistan. Also, until the bankruptcy of Kabul Bank in 2010, Japan continued to help in various sectors with great interest, and Japanese employees and engineers were practically present in Afghanistan. However, following the fall of the Kabul Bank and the widespread corruption of the Afghan government, Japan’s willingness decreased, and, in a meeting at the JICA headquarters, it openly criticized the Afghan government’s unwillingness to fight corruption. Despite that, Japan’s projects continued in Afghanistan, especially in the agriculture sector, Tetsu Nakamura’s development model was recently noticeable to the Japanese government. From the point of view of political and economic interests, Japan has not had definable interests in Afghanistan, and the country’s aid was not made on specific resources that would be profitable for Japan in the future. Therefore, it can be said that Afghanistan’s relationship with Japan should be examined in the context of the country’s international role and status.

Japan’s Presence in Afghanistan under the Taliban Regime

After the fall of the republic government, Japan was one of the countries that closed its embassy in Kabul and withdrew the embassy staff and JICA from Kabul. Even a Japanese military plane was sent to Kabul airport to transfer employees of the embassy and JICA and several Afghan students to Japan. But after the explosion at Kabul airport on August 26, 2021, the Japanese unmanned aircraft left Kabul airport. The Embassy of Japan in Kabul was transferred to Qatar and the transfer of Japanese nationals from Afghanistan was also completed by Qatar.

Japan’s first negotiation with the Taliban’s office after the fall of the government was held in Qatar on the evacuation of its embassy employees, and after that, the negotiations were focused on sending aid and how to distribute it to the people, as well as removing the imposed restrictions by the Taliban until Japan in October 2022, relaunched its political mission in Kabul. Japan has not discussed mutual relations between Japan and Afghanistan in all its meetings with Taliban officials, and most of these talks have revolved around continuing to help the people of Afghanistan and addressing the humanitarian crisis in this country to date. If we assess Japan’s relations with Afghanistan under Taliban rule from this point of view, Japan’s biggest concern is to only prevent a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan has expressed concern about the current situation in a separate statement, highlighting that the reason for Japan’s presence in Afghanistan is to address the humanitarian crisis in the country. Also, Japan played a role in drafting the recent UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution on women’s rights in Afghanistan. At the meeting of the Group of 7 in Japan, Yoshimasa expressed his serious concern about the deterioration of the human rights situation in Afghanistan, strongly condemning the recent decisions of the Taliban, including soaring restrictions on women. He also highlighted that the reason for Japan’s presence in Kabul was due to the unfavorable situation of the people and the humanitarian crisis, and emphasized the need for the cooperation of the international community in Afghanistan. Yoshimasa has even emphasized the need for engaging with the Taliban in order to continue assisting the people of Afghanistan.

Japan’s International Role in Aligning Afghanistan with Western Allies

As aforementioned, Japan’s foreign policy is aligned with the policy of Western countries, and there is no doubt that Japan’s presence in Afghanistan is in harmony with Western countries, and such an approach can be found in Japan’s international role as Western countries have also opened the way of communication with the Taliban and have talked with the Taliban officials many times. Two approaches can strengthen this alignment. The first one is that Westerners believe that the Taliban are the enemy of Islamic State-Khorasan (ISS-K), and strengthening the Taliban will prevent its growth. Another one is that the Taliban consist of two moderate and extreme factions. Western countries believe that there should be an interaction with the moderate faction of the Taliban so that the position of the Taliban towards Afghan women changes and Afghanistan does not become a hub of terrorist groups again. All in all, Japan is present in Afghanistan in line with Western countries, considering its role and international position.

Consequences of Japan’s Presence in Afghanistan under Taliban Rule

Japan’s current presence in Afghanistan does not demonstrate a country-to-country relationship, but rather, it is benevolent and humanitarian from Japan’s point of view. After the issue of the suspension of international institutions in Afghanistan was raised, the ambassador of Japan in Kabul warned that the absence of international institutions, especially the United Nations, will deepen the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The Taliban are benefiting from Japan’s presence in Afghanistan. In a situation where the Taliban do not have internal legitimacy due to widespread violations of human rights, the presence of a powerful country like Japan in Afghanistan is not justifiable, and nor will it change the Taliban’s situation and perspective.

Until now, there has been no change in the Taliban’s view of human rights, the formation of an inclusive government, the consideration of minority rights, and ethnic and cultural diversity in Afghanistan. Japan can continue its humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan at a low level or through third countries and international organizations. If the Taliban do not abide by the demands of the people of Afghanistan, such a presence can unintentionally strengthen the Taliban’s disobedience. Japan or any other country should understand that Afghanistan is the common home of all Afghans and the performance of this group is in conflict with the interests of the Afghans.