Japan’s Response to Crisis

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Dr Ahmad Rashid Malik

Not toeing the American line, but against chemical weapons

There is a further bumpy road ahead in the Middle East. Libya was totally devastated by the NATO. The Egyptian crisis is at the boiling point at the behest of many powers. Other Arab states are at the verge of collapse. Given that scenario, the Syrian crisis has been escalating to no concession. There is protracted violence in Syria. The country has also become a humanitarian crisis. Estimates show that there are over two million Syrian refugees fled to neighbouring countries, namely Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.

Japan is in search of a humanitarian solution in Syria. For instance, in June, Japan decided to extend additional emergency grant aid of US$10 million to support internally displaced people (IDPs) in Syria and refugees and to fully coordinate with various UN agencies and NGOs in this regard. Japan’s humanitarian assistance to Syria’s situation will total US$90 million.

The Syrian crisis has further heightened when the UN-led investigation held that the President Bashar al-Assad regime has used chemical weapons that ‘justified’ the Americans to launch a strike against the Syrians. The alleged report said over 1400 people were killed by such use of at twelve different locations.

On the option of a military strike in Syria, the European Union differed on the matter. The US-Congressional approval went into limbo. Pakistan, Iran, and others vehemently opposed any military action against Syria to prevent a much-larger and uncontrollable war. It was argued that Syria was neither Iraq/Afghanistan nor Libya. Syria instantly agreed to the destruction of its all chemical weapons under international inspections. The Americans were still sceptical about this offer but indications from the statements of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry reveal restraint. It is yet to see which way the Syrian crisis would settle.

Japan’s response to the crisis in Syria is different from China and Russia. In spite of differences, Japan normally toes the alliance with the United States as was done during the Cold War and afterwards, and also during the War on Terror. Intervention in Iraq in the early 1990s and the strike against the Taliban in 2001 hailed a heated debate in the Japanese Diet and among the public. The ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) is generally ‘sympathetic’ to US calls but the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) opposes such moves, particularly supporting the Japanese non-combat mission in the Indian Ocean.

Unlike Afghanistan, the Middle East is quite sensitive owing to Japan’s trade of oil imports and market of its commodity exports. Japan quickly responded positively to Assad’s offer of destroying of chemical weapons. President Obama gave evidence to the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the G-20 Summit recently held in St Petersburg. Japan was among the group of eight countries including the United States and Great Britain that confirmed the use of chemical weapons against the Syrians.

Obama strongly conveyed his views on Syria to Abe. Both have agreed to cooperate toward improving in the situation in war-torn Syria at St Petersburg. Japan is more concerned about the security situation in North East Asia, particularly the use of chemical and nuclear weapons by North Korea. Touching on the East Asia security environment, Abe said cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea is pivotal to present a united front on the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threats.

Japan’s relations with China have also soured over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Island from September 2010. Japan also has an island dispute, Kuril, namely Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai with Russia since 1945. The understanding reached between Japan and Russia over the use of chemical weapons by Syria could help bridge differences between the two. This also means that Japan was more concerned with security situation in North East Asia and wants to bring the use of Syrian chemical weapons under this perspective.

In spite of identical views, Abe expressed support for Russia’s proposal to transfer the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons under the control. Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga considered Russian move on Syrian chemicals as ‘positive’. Japan will seek conditions under which chemical weapons would never be used against people.

Apparently, it was believed that chemical gas used in Syria was ‘sarin’ that was also used by a religious cult called Aum Shinrikyo on 20 March 1995 at Tokyo subways, affecting over 5,500 and killing 12 people. The Japanese foreign ministry stated that ‘the use of chemical weapons is not permissible under any circumstances, and Japan intends to continue its diplomatic efforts toward the immediate cessation of all violence in coordination with the international community’ in Syria.

Japan, however, refused to extend the support to the US-led military action sought by Obama against Syria. Japan’s action was more or less than that of the EU. Japan also extended humanitarian support for Syrian refugees as mentioned above. Like the Russians, the Americans are not wary of Japanese response. Rather they lauded the Japanese reaction. The US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Russel, has praised Japan’s response to the Syrian crisis especially on the point of chemical weapons’ accountability. Analysts say that Syria developed close contact with North Korea for the import of chemical weapons some time ago.

Economically Middle East is an important region for Japan’s trade. Japan imports as high as 90.9 percent of its crude oil requirements from the region. Lacking crude oil, Syria is not an important trading partner of Japan. The two-way trade stood around US$417.3 million in 2011. However, civil war in Syria has dampened Japanese manufacturing spirit because the entire region of the Middle East is crucial for Japan mercantile interests.

Overall Japanese economy has been affected by turmoil in the Middle East for the past two years. Japan has been deeply upset by violence and civil war in Syria. The crisis is further unfolding each passing day. Japan offers a humanitarian and political solution to the Syrian crisis and desires the early cessation of violence and the restoration of peace in that war-torn country. Japan has been willing to further help improve the situation in Syria. Global efforts should also be geared up in this direction.

The writer is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

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