On Japan’s Interest in Central America and the Caribbean: Q&A with JALAC

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The following is part of Asia-LAC Dialogues, a series of interviews produced by the Inter-American Dialogue’s Asia and Latin America Program, featuring global perspectives on recent developments in the Asia-Latin America and the Caribbean dynamic.

Over the last seven years, the Inter-American Dialogue's Asia and Latin America Program and the Japan Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (JALAC) have sought to track key developments in the evolving Japan-Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) relationship, with particular emphasis on progress in the relationship since the late Prime Minister Abe’s 2014 "Juntos" speech, which promoted deeper cooperation across the LAC region. After focusing for several years on Japan's engagement with the region as a whole, and also its relations with Mexico and Brazil, specifically, our latest event, held in October 2022, considered Japan's latest efforts to engage with the Central American and Caribbean regions.

During the event, participants assessed Japan's growing commitment to investment and other activities in Central America and the Caribbean. Speakers noted that the Japanese government has provided vital investment and finance to assist Central American and Caribbean countries in their recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, advance sustainable development goals, address the root causes of irregular migration, build climate resilience and disaster prevention capabilities, and facilitate transitions to green economies and renewable energy sources. There is also evidence of deeper private sector engagement, but more engagement from private companies will depend in very large part on external developments and conditions within the Central American and Caribbean regions.

To better understand these trends, and the policies governing Japan’s evolving ties with the LAC region, we spoke with JALAC representatives Ambassador Akira Yamada, who is currently special assistant to the Japan's minister of foreign affairs, and Akira Kudo, who serves as executive director of JALAC.

Inter-American Dialogue: To what extent is Prime Minister Abe's "Juntos” policy, which was first articulated in 2014, still shape Japan's engagement with the LAC region? Where do Japan's priorities lie at this phase in the relationship?

Yamada: The guiding principles in Japan’s diplomacy with LAC, as expressed in Prime Minister Abe’s 2014 “Juntos” speech, are still clearly alive in Japan’s engagement with LAC today. “Juntos” means “together” in English. The basic philosophy of Juntos is that Japan and LAC countries will tackle various issues in the international community together as equal partners and friends. The three policy pillars of Japan and LAC cooperation are: (1) Progress together: further deepening economic ties, promoting unique Japanese cooperation in human resource development and cutting-edge fields, (2) Lead together: taking leadership in rule-making for a better international community and solving global issues by sharing fundamental values such as democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, (3) Inspire together: expanding human and cultural exchanges to bring about greater mutual understanding and deeper empathy in our historic friendship.

Today, specific policies toward LAC are further deepened, but the basic tenets of Juntos philosophy and policies continue. On the economic front, the emphasis is on further strengthening economic ties between Japan and LAC countries through Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and other measures. On the political and security fronts, Japan tries to cooperate with LAC in creating a better international community based on the rule of law in various fora. Another priority is to expand human exchange in all areas, including culture, sports, science and technology.

Inter-American Dialogue: The Inter-American Dialogue and the Japan Association on Latin America and the Caribbean recently held a public event to consider enhancing Japanese engagement in Central America and the Caribbean. To what extent is Japan positioned to engage more extensively with these regions?

Yamada: Japan has supported the economic development of the Central American region for several decades in order to bring about the consolidation of peace and democracy. In recent years, cooperation that contributes to the economic development and social stability of each country is also expected in terms of preventing the outflow of illegal immigrants. In the Caribbean, Japan has also strengthened its cooperation, especially since the first Japan-CARICOM Summit (2014), which late Prime Minister Abe attended. In addition to long-standing assistance in the field of fisheries, cooperation is progressing in areas such as disaster prevention and renewable energy, bearing in mind the vulnerability of small island nations.

There are pioneering Japanese companies that are taking advantage of their superior technologies and expanding their activities in the region. 

Inter-American Dialogue: How is Japan's private sector viewing opportunities in the Latin American and Caribbean region at present? Should the region expect Japanese engagement in critical growth-promoting sectors?

Kudo: Although the recent pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have caused international political and economic instability, inflation acceleration, and currency depreciation in LAC countries, market strategies in some industries, such as mining and food resources, have not been significantly affected. However, it is undeniable that an increasing number of Japanese firms are cautiously assessing what policies the new, more left-leaning governments of the LAC countries will adopt and what measures they will take in the private sector to improve fiscal soundness, reduce poverty, introduce foreign investment, and respond to (Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Recently, there has been a trend among Japanese private sector companies to focus on infrastructure development (e.g., environmentally friendly electricity, hydrogen energy, etc.), building a digital society, and introducing new technologies in the areas of climate change and environmental protection. Furthermore, they are focusing on businesses that improve health care and education, both of which were highlighted by the pandemic. It is important that LAC countries and Japan continue to work together as a public-private partnership.

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