Far-flung Tonga is among a medley of developing nations that Japan's Defense Ministry is rushing to assist under a program begun without fanfare, but which has the potential to rapidly expand.
The support to these military forces overseas is primarily technical in nature, although medical expertise is being offered, too.
Indonesia, Vietnam, East Timor, Cambodia and Mongolia are also receiving assistance, according to government sources.
However, concern is already being voiced about the way the program has quietly evolved. Officials cited a lack of discussions among officials advising the prime minister and in the Diet, as well as an absence of coordination between the defense and foreign ministries, in devising an overall strategy.
In the medical field, for example, Japan will provide advice on dealing with the bends, acute decompression sickness that is common among deep-sea divers making a rapid ascent to the surface.
As for technical matters, assistance will be offered for clearing land mines, which continue to maim and kill thousands of people around the world each year, among other things.
The assistance, which is strictly non-combat in nature, falls under an initiative to help nations in the Asia-Pacific region build up their ability to defend themselves.
Moves "to stabilize the security environment in areas surrounding Japan" were laid out in the National Defense Program Guidelines approved in December 2010.
Although Japan's official development assistance handled by the Foreign Ministry bans funding armed forces overseas, the program being handled by the Defense Ministry falls outside of the ODA parameters.
Officials said 160 million yen ($2 million) had been set aside in the fiscal 2012 budget for the program. They said the Defense Ministry will seek 200 million yen next fiscal year.
However, a government source said, "It is very likely that the size of the program will quickly expand to about 10 times what it is now."
This is because the recipient nations also have a long shopping list of other items, including weapons and supplies, that they want Japan to provide.
The end of the Cold War, coupled with China's rapid military and naval buildup, prompted a number of nations in Southeast Asia to expand their military capabilities.
Some of these nations have been receiving help from other foreign governments, besides Japan.
For example, China has provided patrol ships to East Timor.
Indonesia will receive fighter jets from the United States. It has also signed an agreement with South Korea to purchase a submarine.
A U.S. government source said the assistance being provided to Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, was to ensure it did not become a hotbed for terrorists.
One reason the Defense Ministry embarked on the program is that other advanced nations have used military assistance in conjunction with their ODA funding.
One government source said Japan did not want to fall behind other nations.
The Defense Ministry in April 2011 set up a special section to handle the support program. The Finance Ministry, which is in charge of compiling budget requests, showed little interest in the program because it is so small.
Another source said, "While we explained the program in the Defense white paper, probably because the nature of technical assistance is not very flashy, it did not attract the attention of politicians or the media."
There has also been little in the way of discussions among the defense and foreign ministries to avoid an overlap in their assistance programs.
The Defense Ministry, which is wary about China's growing military prowess, is keen to expand the program.
In explaining the decision to add Mongolia and Tonga to the list of recipient nations, a former high-ranking Defense Ministry official said, "The selection was made with an eye toward China. The background is different from the Southeast Asian nations that had asked for assistance."
Tonga participated in the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting held last May in Okinawa. Japan asked the United States to send a representative for the first time as part of efforts to consider a joint response to China's growing maritime presence.
Just what form of assistance can be provided Tonga remains to be seen. Tonga has a military force of some 500 personnel.
Officials cited traditionally friendly ties, as well as the likelihood that Tonga will cooperate with the United States and Australia in the defense sector.
Japan's decision last December to ease its three principles on the export of weapons proved to be the catalyst for calls for greater military assistance from Southeast Asian nations.
Defense Ministry officials stressed that the support program is limited to technical assistance. For example, the Indonesian Navy is being provided with assistance to draw up charts, while Vietnam is being provided with technology to treat the bends.
However, those nations are also looking to Japan for hardware. An Indonesian official said Jakarta wanted radar systems and patrol ships. Vietnam also wants a decompresson chamber to help treat those suffering from the bends.
Nations that were not included in the initial list of recipients are also lobbying Japan for inclusion in the future.
For example, the Philippine defense ministry sent a request early this year seeking greater cooperation from Japan in the defense sector.
Because the support program could quickly expand, some in the government are calling for more in-depth discussions to establish rules for providing assistance as well as an overall strategy to more effectively utilize the support program.
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