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Bilateral relations between Japan and Haiti

14 November, 2022

By Luke Austin – Junior Fellow

Diplomatic relations between Japan and Haiti were established in 1931, when a Haitian consulate was constructed in Kobe. While diplomatic relations were suspended as a result of the Second World War, they were duly restarted between both states in 1956. A trade agreement between the two states was signed in 1958 and came into effect from 1963.  In 1960, the Embassy of Haiti in Japan was established. Japan established an embassy in Haiti in 1975, initially headed by a chargé d’affaires before an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary was appointed in 2021.

What sort of trajectory have contemporary Japan-Haiti relations followed, and which sorts of factors have defined their development? There is a modest degree of interaction through CARICOM (Caribbean Community), a multilateral institution which has been praised for its success in furthering Caribbean economic integration, such as the launch of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME). Current Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida, during his previous tenure as Foreign Minister, met CARICOM leaders including then-Haitian Foreign Minister Pierre-Duly Brutus in November 2014. Japan remains a major aid donor. Between 2019 and 2020, Japan provided Haiti with US$24.3 million in official development assistance, making it Haiti’s ninth-largest ODA donor. However, in 2020 Japanese imports to Haiti accounted for 0.44% of the total value of imports, compared to 26.8% for the United States.

Haiti displays a level of political instability which has been observed in few other states. Under French control, Haiti at its peak accounted for half of global sugar production. The next century saw Haiti transform between several forms of government (including the First and Second Empires of Haiti), democratic stagnation through to the 1840s, and the Haitian annexation of Santo Domingo (currently the Dominican Republic). The US occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934. Ruled from 1957 by François Duvalier and then his son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier until 1986, Haiti has faced considerable challenges in its transition to democracy. Following the fall of the Duvalier regime, Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the country’s first democratically elected leader in 1990, only to be removed in a military coup in 1991. The US-led Operation Uphold Democracy enabled Aristide’s return to power in late 1994. The situation deteriorated over the next decade, and in 2004 Aristide was forced into exile in Jamaica.

The ensuing United Nations Stabilisation Mission (MINUSTAH) enjoyed disputed levels of success until its departure in 2017: on one hand, it resulted in the neutralisation of numerous gang and rebel leaders, peacekeepers managed to distribute a large quantity of aid despite events such as the 2010 earthquake, and the very fact that MINUSTAH managed to remain in Haiti for 13 years has been given as a measure of success. On the other hand, MINUSTAH became highly controversial for several reasons: cholera was inadvertently reintroduced to Haiti a century after its eradication, while some UN peacekeepers were accused of committing human rights violations towards the local population, ranging from sexual abuse to acts and threats of physical violence. Furthermore, extensive analysis has revealed the Haitian National Police (PNH)’s inability to conduct basic policing, as well as being implicated in numerous counts of human rights violations from late 2017.

It is through humanitarian efforts, however, that Japan-Haiti bilateral relations have experienced major developments. An island nation itself prone to natural disasters, Japan has actively assisted Haiti, which has been devastated by several catastrophes including the devastating earthquake of January 2010. This earthquake caused between 220,000 and 250,000 deaths and US$ 8.1 billion worth of damage. Many were surprised by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s decision to contribute Self-Defence Forces (SDF) personnel for the following United Nations (UN) mission in Haiti. On 11th March 2011, Japan experienced the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. Comparisons between the responses of Haiti and Japan to their respective natural disasters, aside from highlighting the differences in the level of involvement of UN agencies such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), also laid bare the profound differences between the national capacities of both states and how this impacted their respective rebuilding processes. One Haitian journalist, who in 2011 stated that the two states “share a certain seismic similarity”, pointed to bilateral projects such as the Japanese International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) training programme for Haitian public officials and engineers as well as multilateral schemes for the training of technicians and agricultural workers which have also involved the Dominican Republic and Mexico as participants. In 2017, the Japanese government pledged over US$2.5 million to Haiti to counter the cholera epidemic which ravaged Haiti for much of the 2010s. Japan’s state involvement in Haiti also extends to both health and non-health infrastructure. Such projects range from the reconstruction of Hôpital St. Michel in Jacmel to the rebuilding of the Route Neuf and Croix de Mission bridges. Japanese non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also played an important role in post-earthquake rebuilding efforts, with Peace Winds Japan (PWJ) providing tents for those affected and liaising with both MINUSTAH and other NGOs, while the Japanese Red Cross (JRC) undertook a great deal of medical care provision around the city of Léogâne following the SDF’s departure from the area and conducted surveys which brought to light various issues ranging from poor water quality to the prevalence of health conditions in the population.

Diplomatic relations were strengthened in May with the Haitian-Japanese Friendship League signed by the Haitian ambassador to Japan, the Haitian Chargé d’Affaires and a number of Japanese politicians: this agreement is geared towards the development of economic as well as cultural ties between Japan and Haiti. According to a blog entry authored by one of the participants, a town council member from Nara prefecture, the event was attended by councillors from several prefectures, including Osaka, Nara and Hyogo. Thus, we see how Japan’s subnational governments (SNGs) also play an important role in its diplomacy, as unlike main government organs, they are not hindered by the same bureaucratic constraints.

Following, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, many worried that this event would increase the pace of Haiti’s “democratic backsliding”. Within one month, Haiti was struck by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake,  leaving at least 2,000 dead and many more homeless. However, the ongoing political instability and humanitarian conundrum in Haiti has continued, with chronic shortages of fuel and electricity being exacerbated by armed gangs blockading major fuel terminals. Furthermore, 1.8 million individuals in Haiti are reported to be “at an emergency level of malnutrition”. On 24th October, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) announced the closure of its embassy “due to the rapid destabilization of the security and humanitarian situation in Haiti”, opening a temporary office in the Dominican Republic. The UN Security Council has enacted sanctions ranging from travel bans to arms seizures targeting members of the criminal groups involved, particularly gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier.

One paradigm which could influence future Japan-Haiti relations is the geopolitical competition between the US and People’s Republic of China (PRC). While Haiti is for the large part considered to fall within the US sphere of influence, in recent years the PRC has increased its presence in Latin America as demonstrated in the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) within the region. Having established relations in 1956 with the Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan, Haiti has prioritised these relations over those with the PRC and has shown Taiwan diplomatic support on several occasions. Most recently, the Haitian government condemned naval drills conducted by the PRC in the Taiwan Strait in August as a response to the announced visit made by US Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. The Caribbean may appear to be unrelated to the dispute between the PRC and ROC, but the reality is rather different. The key factor behind China’s increased engagement with Caribbean states, such as the Dominican Republic, has been explained in terms of increasing the number of votes which the PRC could receive in international formats ranging from Interpol to the UN itself- formats in which Taiwan cannot participate due to its disputed status and limited diplomatic recognition. An example of how this relates to bilateral Japan-Haiti relations is mirrored in the suggestion that the Hatoyama administration’s decision to intervene in the 2010 disaster was not entirely motivated by altruism, but also by three wider contextual factors: the dispatch of SDF personnel to Haiti coincided with the withdrawal of SDF personnel assisting US-led operations in Afghanistan from the Indian Ocean, potentially signifying a compensatory move; the deterioration of US-Japanese relations stemming from Hatoyama’s appraisal of Japan’s ties with the PRC, the inability of his administration to resolve the Futenma Air base issue as well as Hatoyama’s proposal for an East Asian Community which would potentially exclude the US; and the fact that substantial relations between Japan and Haiti were largely absent prior to the events of 2010.

The PRC dispatched its own personnel to Haiti in 2004, drawn predominantly from its civilian security forces. It has been argued that the PRC took such a course of action for several reasons which included the protection of Chinese citizens in Haiti and repatriation of remains of those who had died during the earthquake, as well as “assuming the humanitarian responsibilities of an emerging great power” and the potential isolation of Taiwan. Taiwan refused to evacuate its then-ambassador Hsieh Hsin-ping from Haiti in order to dissuade Beijing from taking advantage of the situation.  A similar dynamic, motivated by rivalry with Taiwan, has also been used to explain why the PRC’s aid to Haiti in 2010 compared unfavourably with that afforded by other donors to Haiti and the PRC’s previously offered aid to states affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. More recently, Moïse’s assassination sparked fears that Haiti would be made more vulnerable to the PRC’s demands, as the PRC has made offers of vaccines and other aid for Haiti to switch allegiances. At the same time, Japan’s security policy has changed in the face of the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, so much so that it places less focus on its own territorial disputes with the PRC, such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute. This has been implied by recent diplomatic exchanges such as Kishida’s meeting with Pelosi held hours after Chinese ballistic missiles landed in Japanese territorial waters near Taiwan, while Japan’s ambassador to the PRC Tarumi Hideo stated in his criticism of the launces that “the state of Sino-Japanese relations could change dramatically”. Furthermore, as Japan remains a key US ally through the US-Japan Security Alliance and its own role within this format becomes a more active one as the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis demands that Japan’s SDF prepares itself for a conflict scenario, Japan will observe such developments in Haiti with the utmost concern.

How to achieve political stability in Haiti is a matter of debate. Many warn against fresh military intervention, with one referring to such a proposal as a “Band-Aid, not a lasting remedy”. One former US ambassador was even blunter in his criticism of a UN proposal advocating military intervention, outlining the potential consequences: “We’re going to have a civil uprising in Haiti similar to 1915”. It is estimated that over half of Port-au-Prince is under the control of gangs, many of which have taken on some attributes of local governing authorities: they operate their own courts, collect revenue from utility bills and have even established “police stations”. Cherizier’s police training, as well as the significance of his actions in that they have, to quote the UN Security Council’s report, “directly contributed to the economic paralysis and humanitarian crisis in Haiti”, may well have already helped to cement his position as a de facto leader, At the same time, Haiti’s incumbent acting president Ariel Henry appears to be confronted with issues surrounding his own legitimacy as Haiti’s head of government on the grounds that he has been accused of involvement in Moïse’s assassination.

Kishida may for the moment be preoccupied with low approval ratings linked to doubts over his economic stimulus package and his party’s controversial links to the new religious movement the Unification Church. Moreover, Taiwan’s future becomes increasingly cloudy. PRC Premier Xi Jinping recently refused to rule out the possibility of the PRC’s acquirement of Taiwan by force, causing much concern in Taiwan and the US. It has also been suggested that the PRC’s increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan has unwittingly led to increased official interaction between Taiwan and Japan. Although it has earlier been shown that the past two decades have seen a strengthening of ties between Japan and Haiti, particularly in the spheres of humanitarian cooperation and politico-cultural exchange, the fast-paced and unpredictable nature of the Fourth Taiwan Straits Crisis could lead Kishida to focus his country’s resources on foreign policy matters closer to home.

Image: for Prime Minister Noda shaking hands with the former, President of the Republic of Haiti, Mr. Michel Joseph Martelly, during the Japan-Haiti Summit in 2012 (Source: Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet (Link) Compiled by Reconfiguring original image)

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.