Japan’s Middle East Diplomacy


Japan is rocked. The nation is stunned. It is, however, committed to fight against terrorism world over and committed not to bow down to terrorists’ demands. The country has been facing its most difficult policy options since the oil shock in the early 1970s. This time oil is not an issue but Japan’s commitment to humanitarian aid for some countries in the Middle East has been upsetting the agenda. The Middle East itself is in turmoil. Rebels and militant armed groups, initially backed by Western powers in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, have now taken much ground.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the four Middle Eastern not oil-rich countries namely; Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. The visit started on 16 January was cancelled amidst tensions after the kidnapping of two Japanese nationals by ISIS. The purpose of the tour was contributing towards peace and diplomacy in the region rather than traditionally seeking oil security for the Japanese industry.

Japan, however, heavily relies on imports of oil from the Middle East and adopts a very cautious policy towards the region. Abe wants to contribute to take part in conflict zones around the world as part of his re-assertive military diplomacy by amending the Peace Constitution. He thinks that his diplomacy could stabilize the region. It seems the mishap was the first backfire on Abe’s diplomacy in the Middle East.

Things are much more complicated here than simply ‘taking part in conflict situations’. Egypt is in turmoil. Abe wants to launch counter-terrorism offences in cooperation with Israel. Abe pledged to offer US$ 200 million to Egypt to battle with the ISIS. An economic aid package of US$ 360 will be offered to Egypt. Abe pledged US$ 100 million for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. Earlier, Japan offered US$ 2.2 billion assistance to the Middle East two years ago. Additionally, Japan would provide US$ 2.5 billion assistance to the region.

In South Asia, Abe’s diplomacy has tilted more towards India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan in September last year and Abe toured India in January last. During his first tenure, he visited India in 2007; Pakistan is part of both Middle Eastern and South Asian diplomacy. With this dual significance, Abe has ignored Pakistan.

In the 1950s, Pakistan had been an important part of Japanese diplomacy. Pakistan was a ‘tower of strength’ on Japanese peace treaty and played a leading role in Japan’s return to Asia in 1957. To make Japanese diplomacy more effective in the region, Abe needs not to ignore Pakistan.

Recent terrorist activities in France could also be alarming for Japan. In 2006, Prime Minister Junichro Koizumi visited the Middle East. The political landscape of the Middle East has been much transformed during 2006-15 and Japan needs to reconnect with the region. Japan is willing to recognize the State of Palestine.

Japan has been battling against terrorism since 9/11. There is, however, division within Japan about the way Prime Minister Junichro Koizumi nodded in favor of President George W Bush. Japan’s navel mission in the Indian Ocean remained suspended several times until Japan scraped the mission in January 2010. So the irritant was removed.

The kidnapping of Kenji Goto Jogo (a journalist) and Haruna Yukawa (a military consultant by his personal choice as Japan does not have these kinds of military companies unlike in the United States etc) sends a negative image of Islam in Japan whether the kidnappers are real Muslims or acting on someone’s behalf. Things are not clear yet.

Reacting, after reaching Tokyo, Abe said that ‘extremism and Islam are completely different things’. Abe vows not to bow down to terrorists’ demands. In the past, in similar situations, it is not clear if Japan paid any ransom money for hostages or not.

Following the tragedy, Abe wrapped up his tour by cancelling many meetings already scheduled. Obviously, it is a setback to Abe’s diplomacy in the Middle East where things are at the boiling point. Besides ISIS is active in Iraq and Syria and controlling oil-wells, Japan has not been the part of the US-military strategy fight against ISIS but its financial contributions have been turned by militants as a fight between them and Japan.

Japan always averts to directly link to the conflict but an assertive Japanese military under Abe’s reinterpretation of the Constitution has to be directly linked to the conflict. This is a new phenomenon in Japan’s Middle East policy after a long hiatus of several decades. An assertive Japan has to see how that it would react in such situations. Diplomatic channels did not help the release of the Japanese captives.

Would Japan be now directly linked to US military policy in the Middle East and elsewhere? Or it would pursue in its own way? Under the new reinterpretation of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) it was translated that Japanese SDF could rescue its nationals in case of eventualities abroad.

Now it remains to be seen whether Japan will be able to cope with the volatile political scenario in Middle East’s conflict zones.

Japan had never been an anti-Islamic country. Since the Japanese rise, there had been more interactions of Japan with Muslims especially the Turks, Russian Tatars, and Subcontinent’s Muslims. Most of them fought alongside Japanese imperial soldiers.

The end of World War II ended Islam-Japan romanticism. Their postwar relations were based on neutrality, oil imports from the Middle East, and economic cooperation.

There used to be a distinction between Japan and the United States as put by Motohiro Ono, a member of the national Diet. The ISIS brackets Japan with the United States as enemy countries, he pointed out. This is a new dimension. Would Japan follow its own policy in the Middle East or closely align with the United States and establish close links with Israel? The Middle East has been continuously affecting Japanese policy. Much uproar took place in the Diet when the Japanese government financed the first Gulf War and decided to participate in the Peace Keeping Operation. The spade of violent actions in the Middle East has been changing the fabric of relations between Japan and the Middle East. Japan needs to carefully review its Middle East policy.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISS or of the Government of Pakistan.