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Japan Deepens Middle Eastern Diplomacy – Analysis


Japan’s dependence on petroleum imports from the Middle East is the single important factor why an engagement strategy with the region is a key element of Japan’s Middle Eastern diplomacy. Before the oil crisis in the 1990s, Japan’s foreign policy mandarins in Kasumegaseki as well as political leaders took it for granted that relations between Japan and the Middle East are simply buyer-seller relationship. That changed after the formation of cartel by oil exporting countries and the Iran-Iraq war. Since then, Japan has pursued a pro-active engagement strategy with the countries in the Middle Eastern region. The recent visits of Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono to the region may be analysed against this background.


When Kono embarked on a five-country visit on 8 December 2017 taking him to the Middle East, Europe and the United States, the main item in the agenda was the peace process in the Middle East and North Korea. While in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Kono discussed Japan’s thinking on the state of peace in the Middle East. The main focus was on the implication of President Donald Trump’s designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his announcement of shifting the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and what it means to the peace process between Israel and Palestine and what Japan can contribute to this process. Kono’s role was all the more important as anger spread across the region on Trump’s decision.

Another dimension of Kono’s Middle East sojourn stems from his international-mindedness as he is known for articulating his views fiercely on any issues of national and global importance, earning the label of being a “LDP Rebel with a Cause” in a profile piece about him in Wall Street Journal in 2011. Moreover, he has a genuine interest in Middle Eastern affairs and had visited a number of Arab countries including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, UAE and Saudi Arabia.

While in the Middle East, Kono met with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Being the country’s Defence Minister, Salman is the architect of Vision 2030 with an ambitious reform plan, the aims of which is to balance the kingdom’s financial sheets, end the reliance on oil by diversifying the economy, open up the country and improve the standards of living of Saudi citizens. It is here Japan’s economic engagement assumes importance. Even on the controversial issue of Syrian refugees, Kono holds political views contrary to the mainstream political view of Japan by saying that Japan should take in Syrian refugees and be “more politically involved in the Middle Eastern affairs”.

On other issues, Kono believes Japan and Saudi Arabia can cooperate in areas such as combating terrorism, particularly when Japan has been putting emphasis on security issue in the build up to the Olympics, which it is going to host in 2020. Such a stance by Kono complements with that of Saudi Arabian leadership of the Riyadh-based coalition of more than 30 countries called the Islamic Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IAFT), which Prince Mohammad oversaw the formation of, with the objective to defeat international violent extremism militarily, ideologically, financially and electronically.

Being an ageing society and compounded by falling birth rate, Japan is confronted with a serious demographic challenges. There are projections that if this trend continues, Japan’s total population may plummet to 50 million from the current 126 million within next 100 years. This inevitably raises the question if Japan is going to liberalise its strict immigration laws and welcome more foreign workers to meet the labour shortfall. Change in government policy is not enough; there could be other societal factors that could prevent any drastic policy overhaul. Language being another hurdle, Japan still continues to remain extremely conservative despite being a modernised country. Stress on maintaining racial purity still remains strong. All these go against a liberal immigration policy that shall see a sudden influx of many foreigners whose integration within the Japanese society could lead to serious social consequences. So, immigration continues to remain a very touchy issue in Japan.


Saudi Arabia is keen that workers from the country could travel to Japan for work if the restrictions are liberalised. With the current birth rate of around 1.4, Japan would not be able to sustain its economy unless it allows immigration. Though the official government policy denies foreign workers, many foreign workers already work in Japan. Besides many Chinese and Southeast Asians who come as “trainees” work in shopping malls and restaurants and in low-skill sectors. Also, under the pretext of having the Japanese blood, there are many Japanese-Peruvians and Japanese-Brazilians in Japan. Kono admitted that these are “nothing but cheap workers” but without whom Japan will not be able to build facilities necessary for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020. The hard truth is such Japanese immigrants of second or third generations find it difficult to adjust to the native Japanese customs and culture and prefer not to be dislocated from their country of settlement.

Language still remains as the biggest barrier. Japan learnt the hard way in the 1980s when many Japanese descendants with Japanese blood came from South America to work in factories in Japan, they were not able to assimilate into the Japanese society because of language problem.

Religion is another issue that Japanese people could find difficult to understand that a foreigner could hold. Japanese have peculiar religious practices: having wedding in a Church, funerals with Buddhist monks, enjoying Shinto festivals in Shinto Shrines, children being fond of Santa Claus, having Halloween and St. Valentine Day party, etc. So, when a foreigner speaks about ‘religion’, it is difficult for a Japanese to understand in a cultural context. So, the gap in understanding between an immigrant and native Japanese on religious issues could cause tensions and stress. This is another barrier to the prospect of immigrants from the Middle East to make Japan their home, albeit temporarily. There are almost no Muslims and Jews who are Japanese and Christians constitute just about 1 per cent of the population. The rest do not define themselves in religious categories. So it is difficult for Japanese to build ties on religious identities.

Yet, it is true that Japanese economy is dependent on the oil and gas from the Middle East. In view of Japan’s global positioning, it can no longer afford to remain detached from Middle Eastern affairs. Japan would be willing to be an honest broker in the Palestine peace process and can “agree to disagree” with the United States. In order to do so, it is desirable that proper climate be created to forge stronger personal relationships with Arab nations at many levels. Japanese politicians feel shy not to pick phone and call their counterparts when necessary. That seems not to be Kono’s approach to handle Japan’s foreign policy.

There is already the Japan-Arab Leadership network and its members have visited Arab countries every year for last fifteen years. It would be good if the same courtesy is extended to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well. Terrorism is another issue in which Japan seeks cooperation with the Middle East nations. In the past, Japanese hostages have been murdered by ISIS and Japan’s cooperation with the new Islamic Anti-Terror coalition could be in Japan’s interest. As Japan is going to host the 2020 Olympic Games, stepping up anti-terror activities is a priority, especially tackling cyber terrorism as cyber-attacks can adversely affect the economies of nations. This time, though Kono wanted to visit Saudi Arabia, it was not possible due to scheduling conflict as his travel dates to Bahrain the UAE, France, Britain and the US were packed. Kono returned to Japan on December 7.

After Trump’s controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a new twist into Middle East was suddenly injected, in which countries around the world had to take positions. As regards Japan, Kono visited the region the third time during which he travelled to Israel and Palestine on 25-26 December. He told the leaders of both the countries that the status of Jerusalem should be settled through negotiations between the parties concerned. Kono was the first foreign minister from a major country to visit Jerusalem following Trump’s December 6 announcement in which he also vowed to transfer the US embassy to the city from Tel Aviv. During his trip, Kono discussed the issue in respective meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who doubles as foreign minister, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Kono expressed Japan’s willingness to help resume the Middle East peace process by trying to push building confidence between the two parties.

Israel has long claimed Jerusalem is its “eternal and undivided capital”, while the Palestinians hope East Jerusalem, which was occupied by Israel in 1967, will be the capital of their future state. Japan supports a two-state solution to the conflict and takes the position that the final status of Jerusalem should be resolved through negotiations between the parties. Kono and Netanyahu agreed on the significance of the US role as a mediator in peace negotiations. Kono conveyed the same message on the US role to Abbas in their talks in Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian authority in the West Bank. While Netanyahu indicated his intention of attaching importance to negotiations, Abbas said he does not intend to resort to violence and that he wants to step up dialogue. Kono’s stress that both leaders should seek compromise through dialogue towards peace found resonance. Kono’s visit was more than minor significance to directly convey the view of countries such as Japan that the status of Jerusalem should be determined through negotiations between the parties involved.

Japan found itself in a dilemma on Trump’s decision. Despite being a close ally, Japan maintained that it does not side with Washington and will not move its embassy to Jerusalem. Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, therefore, welcomed Japan’s involvement in the issue. Japan was among 128 countries that voted in favour of the resolution denouncing the US decision on Jerusalem at a UN General Assembly emergency special session.

After becoming Japan’s Foreign Minister in August 2017, Kono has taken a strategic interest in the Middle Eastern affairs, hoping to deepen ties with Arab nations. In September, he undertook a six-day trip to five Middle Eastern countries. Kono also wanted to seek the cooperation of the five nations in tackling North Korea, which had conducted its most powerful nuclear test. This was Kono’s first trip to the region since becoming Japan’s Foreign Minister. The five nations he visited were Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In a speech delivered in Cairo, Kono outlined Japan’s plan to actively get involved in the region. The visit was significant because Trump’s policy towards regional peace efforts and Iran had raised doubts. In particular, his appointment of his Jewish son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner had created suspicion on what his stance on the Middle Pace process would be. This can true when Trump announced his decision in December to recognise Jerusalem as Israeli capital, triggering a new crisis in the region. This also had given rise to an anti-American sentiment in the region. In contrast, Japan was increasingly seen as a friend of the region and trusting Japan was easier than trusting the US. And, in creating such trust of Japan in the region, Kono’s contribution is immense.

Since his studying days in the US, Kono has built up a network of contacts. Kono met King Abdullah II of Jordan, a classmate at Georgetown University, over lunch in the royal palace in Amman. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arranged for a private jet to take Kono to his next stop in Egypt. Though some analysts in Japan believed that Japan’s active participation in Middle Eastern affairs could reduce diplomatic burden of the US, it remains unclear how much diplomatic capital Japan can earn as Trump stance on Jerusalem has vitiated the situation, clipping Japan’s diplomatic efforts. Yet, Middle Eastern countries still repose their confidence on Japan that it is the only country that can have frank exchanges with the US on the regional issues. It remains uncertain however, how much Japan will be able to get involved in a region fraught with a complicated history that Japan has played little part in. It also remains to be seen how much Kono is able to hone his diplomatic skill through trial and error that would meet Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s pursuance of inventive diplomacy in the region and beyond.

Thus, assessing Kono’s diplomacy in the region in advancing Middle East peace process, pursuing dialogue seems to be the only sensible route. How much of Kono’s meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas separately in the closing days of 2017 could fetch any tangible result remains to be seen. For the time being, Kono seems to have succeeded in helping create the right environment to advance Middle East peace process.

In further deepening Japan’s diplomacy with the region, Japan has also an economic dimension to it. It is promoting its Corridor for Peace and Prosperity initiative aimed at realising economic self-support of the Palestinians, through its development assistance on the West Bank of the Jordan River. It is a program in which four parties – Japan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan – cooperate. Japan’s economic assistance has helped the farm product processing complex in Jericho, West Bank, and Kono announced Japan’s commitment to expand support in the areas of physical distribution and information and telecommunications. If Palestinians are able to achieve economic growth and lives of the people are stabilised, Japan’s contribution to create the right environment which can be the basis for promoting peace in the Middle East would not have been in vain. There is scope also for utilising Japan’s unique knowledge gained through its assistance to developing countries over many years in furthering manpower development, education and public health in the region.

This was Kono’s third visit to the Middle East since taking office. Besides making efforts that could contribute to the peace process, Japan seeks support of the Middle Eastern countries on the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” promoted by the Abe administration. As mentioned at the outset, Japan needs to secure stable supply of energy resources from the region, which is why deepening ties with countries in the region is a major focus of Japan’s Middle East diplomacy. Japan’s thrust in developing multi-layered cooperative relationships with the countries in the Middle East that support peace initiatives towards stabilisation has therefore merit.

*Dr. Rajaram Panda is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, JAPAN. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either that of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: [email protected]

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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