15 Dec Japan Seeks To Buy Out Mauritius Government With $300 Million Deal Over Oil Spill
Japan’s Foreign Minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, completed a two day tour of Mauritius this weekend, including the site of the oil spill by the Japanese owned and operated Wakashio, four months ago.
As part of this tour, he met with Mauritius’ Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, Mauritius Minister of Foreign Affairs Nando Bodha and visited the site of the Wakashio’s ongoing clean up operations.
In a press conference in Mauritius on Sunday, Motegi revealed his future plans for the response to the oil spill. It was as notable for what he did not say, for as much as what was revealed
At the end of the press conference and in subsequent statements from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was revealed that Japan was seeking a rapid resolution to the Wakashio oil spill for a $300 million loan (30 billion Yen) to avoid a thorough investigation into the cause of the incident.
There was no mention of Japanese assistance into the root cause of the Wakashio incident, or any assistance from Japanese Law Enforcement officials into the critical pieces of equipment and documentation currently missing from the inquiry, and being held by Japanese companies.
This came as assistance from Governments around the world (U.S., Australia, U.K., France, Canada) appeared to be elbowed out by the IMO and Japanese companies present on the ground early during the oil spill, as they attempted to control the facts that were being released about the incident.
Environment and local community ignored
Despite being in the country for two days, Motegi did not meet with any of the leaders of the local communities who were on the front lines of the oil spill and had to build their own oil protection booms.
The Cabinet of Mauritius issued a statement just prior to the visit listing the engagements as “(a) pay a courtesy call on the Prime Minister; (b) participate in a Ministerial Working Session; (c) sign a Grant Agreement; and(d) carry out a site visit at Rivière des Créoles following the grounding of MV Wakashio,” without any mention of meeting the communities most affected by the oil spill.
These community leaders are angry about what is seen as an opaque clean up exercise coordinated and funded by the Wakashio’s large Japanese ship insurer, Japan P&I Club. Many areas around the coastline are still suffering from the heavy ship oil, such as the RAMSAR protected Point Jerome Mangrove Forest around Pointe D’Esny.
It was notable that despite being only a five minute drive away, the Japanese Foreign Minister did not visit any of the RAMSAR-protected mangrove forest sites such as Pointe Jerome, the regions of Mahebourg where the cleanup of the oil has not even begun (Mahebourg Theater), Blue Bay Marine Park (the location of the famous 1000-year old brain coral that has still not been filmed since the oil spill), the rich seagrass and coral lagoon, nor Ile aux Aigrettes, that contained the dozens of rare species which were most directly impacted by the oil spill and administered by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.
The trip is being seen as largely a public relations exercise, rather than a genuine attempt by Japan to explore the root causes of the Wakashio incident, the reasons why over 50 dolphins and whales died, learn the lessons from this disaster, and develop a genuine rehabilitation program with the support of the local community most directly impacted.
The controversial $289million loan offer
The financial support package by Japan is largely seen as an attempt to prevent Mauritius filing its claims in international court against the damage caused by the large Japanese businesses behind the Wakashio.
In the 13 December Press Conference, with follow up questions from Japanese reporters, Motegi revealed he was exploring a $289 million loan to Mauritius.
This is over 30 times less than the estimated $10 billion of damage caused to the island and that Mauritius would be entitled to claim in international courts that regulate shipping and oil pollution. Japan’s approach (of having a loan, rather than a grant which the insurance payout would have effectively achieved) would seek to keep Mauritius beholden to Japanese debt rather than empowering the country to rehabilitate the Mauritian economy itself.
Many perceive Japan’s loan as a way to prevent the Government of Mauritius from conducting a thorough investigation into the cause of the grounding and oil spill which is needed to file their case in the appropriate legal courts for the damages caused to the island.
This raises even more questions about the motivations of the Japanese Government, and whether they are also part of an effort to cover up the evidence and impact of the oil spill, rather than hold Japanese companies – some of the most influential in Japan – to account.
Japan’s search for military bases
The loan is also thought to be a way to exert more pressure on Mauritius.
It has been known for a while that Japan has been seeking a military base in the Indian Ocean following a series of developments where it backed out of a U.S. missile deal to attempt to develop its own first strike missile capability.
Some of Mauritius’ outlying islands would prove an attractive location for Japan, which signed a defense agreement for base sharing with India this summer, and is controversially preparing to gear up its military presence.
Such a $300 million loan would strengthen Japan’s hold over Mauritius.
Five notable omissions by Motegi
Here are the five omissions from the Japanese Foreign Minister regarding the Wakashio oil spill that were not mentioned in any of the meetings he held on the island.
1. Where is Japan’s legal assistance to investigate the Wakashio?
There is a strong suspicion of corporate malfeasance with the Wakashio. Japanese companies continue to shield themselves behind a web of shell companies hidden in Panama. Yet, the Foreign Minister Motegi did not once promise any law enforcement investigation into the cause of the grounding of the Wakashio.
Responses to Forbes from the Japanese authorities in Mauritius confirmed that their mandate is not to look at the law enforcement aspects of the Wakashio grounding. This is despite the navigation and voice systems from the Wakashio being manufactured in Japan (which had required higher standards since 2014) and, problems being identified with both the Electronic Chart Systems and the fact that no audio could be downloaded from the Voyage Data Recorder.
There have been serious questions raised about the conduct of the insurer Japan P&I Club, the shipowners, Nagashiki Shipping, and the operator, Mitsui OSK Lines. Given that critical evidence is being held by these three companies, and questions remains around who was making the key operational decisions for the Wakashio (Mitsui OSK Lines or Nagashiki Shipping), what details the shipowners (Nagashiki Shipping) had disclosed, and the conduct of the Japanese insurers, Japan P&I Club, Japan’s Government appears to be putting its corporate interests first.
2. Japan’s seeking another backdoor deal?
Toshimitsu Motegi, and the Government of Japan have still not called for a full international investigation into the cause of the oil spill, including hearings in the appropriate international courts. Trying to seek another quick backdoor deal (after an earlier $34 million attempt was revealed by the Japanese media), appears to show a pattern of the Japanese Government stepping in to avoid any liability for the large Japanese corporate interests caught up with the Mauritius oil spill. Why would Japan seek to circumvent the law courts over the oil spill? It should be acting as a role model internationally, and ensuring full transparency into the root cause of the Wakashio, to prevent such incidents ever occurring again and sending a signal to ship operators around the world about what conduct is expected of them. It raises the question whether the Japanese Government would have conducted its response in the same way as if this incident had occurred in the middle of Tokyo Bay?
3. No statements on the environment or human health
A major ecological disaster occurred with the Wakashio oil spill. The oil damage will remain for decades in the region, as has been seen with other major oil and toxic chemical spills. Motegi didn’t once acknowledge the deaths of over 50 dolphins and whales, the damage to Mauritius’ reefs (which he did not visit), nor did he address the health concerns of the community in South East Mauritius. Instead, he focused on Covid-19 responses, which Mauritius has a low incidence of. The bigger concerns are why has the Japanese insurer not been financing the thorough health assessments demanded by local community groups in the region?
4. No statement on Rule of Law, Human Rights, or Democracy
Mauritius is in the midst of a disputed election, currently being heard in the Law Courts. Whenever foreign dignitaries arrive at a contentious time of an election or election dispute in a country, it is customary to meet with members of both the opposition and the Government to demonstrate that Japan intends to build bridges with the country, and not political parties within a country. By only meeting with members of one political party (and none of the NGO or community groups), the signals that the Japanese Government has been viewed as very partisan.
Japan is developing a poor reputation for supporting more and more authoritarian Governments through a range of trade deals, and not standing up for Human Rights, Rule of Law or Democracy.
Both the U.K. and EU have made statements about the importance of the Rule of Law and Human Rights in Mauritius, given the court case delays to the election, yet no statement has been made by the Japanese Embassy in Mauritius.
The values Japan enshrines will come under increasing scrutiny as it seeks to influence more international organizations and is pushing for a seat on the UN Security Council. Japan is already seen as attempting to influence several UN Agencies to act in its national corporate interests, such as on shipping with the IMO, whaling with the IWC, fishing with the FAO and regional tuna bodies, climate change with the Paris Climate Agreement.
5. Japan’s aggressive international economic expansion
Japan has been pursing trade deals that are perceived as unfair to poorer countries. For example, official trade figures reveal Japan pays $30 million for tuna in Mauritius each year, that has a street value of $1.5 billion in the restaurants of Tokyo. Most of these profits are being retained by Japan’s powerful tuna lobby, such as Japan’s largest conglomerate, Mitsubishi Corporation, that controls almost half the world’s tuna fisheries.
Mauritius has some of the highest quality tuna in the world, with significantly lower pollution than tuna caught in the Western Pacific (close to Asia). The tuna around the coast of Japan receive lower premiums as they are more affected with higher levels of mercury, heavy metals and cesium due to the use of coal power stations in Asia (including Japan and China), and whose deposits in the ocean accumulate up the food chain into tunas, which are predators at the top of many food chains.
This also raises questions why Japan is seeking a loan with Mauritius, rather than a fairer trade deal. Taking on additional debt from Japan would burden Mauritius even further. If Japan had wished that Mauritius had a more stable bridge loan until the insurance from the Wakashio is paid, a more transparent arrangement with the IMF would have been the usual protocol.
By not brokering an IMF-financing arrangement, this raises even more questions about the Japanese Government’s motivations and the corporate interests the Japanese Government may be seeking to protect.
Motegi’s visit embroils Japan’s Government in complicity of a cover up
With trust in Japan’s ability to conduct an independent investigation and clean up operation at an all time low, Motegi missed an opportunity to reset relations between the two countries.
In a coincidence of timing, Japan introduced a new Ambassador to Mauritius after four months of oil spill diplomacy.
Japan has appeared to miss every opportunity to reset its relations with the Indian Ocean nation after months of disastrous handling of the oil spill, salvage and clean up. If a change in trajectory cannot be resolved at the level of Japan’s Foreign Minister, it says a lot more about the Japanese Government’s deference to its powerful business interests, than the importance it assigns to its role and reputation on the world stage.
A $300 million backdoor ‘loan’ arrangement, when damages are estimated almost 30 times higher (at $10 billion), is a signal that a new form of colonialism is rising.
This time it is economic colonialism, with Japan and India at the helm, as they increasingly pursue more aggressive foreign policy strategies around the world.