Clicky

Foreign Policy

Japan is essentially the most plausible participant within the Center East

Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Qatar as part of a regional tour that focused on Middle East security and COVID-19 recovery. The visit coincided with the United States’ exodus from Afghanistan and the resulting uncertainty about Washington’s decade-long commitments in the Persian Gulf and broader involvement in regional geopolitics.

Back in Tokyo, just a year after taking power, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga joins the ranks of the Japanese revolving door prime ministers. But although Suga’s tenure was short and troubled, his administration continued to lay the vital strategic foundations of his predecessor Shinzo Abe, whose eight-year tenure saw Japan transform into a prominent administrator of the liberal international order. With Japan’s current weakening economy and the setbacks in the COVID-19 recovery after the Tokyo Olympics, Suga’s potential successors will be around the corner.

But as a highly networked middle power that is active in key areas of the Middle East, Tokyo has the opportunity to open a multilateral strategic dialogue with the region that will focus on the critical issues of the next few decades – namely digital transformation and technological competition. Such a dialogue would help the Middle East adapt to Washington’s reorientation towards Afghanistan, mitigate the risk of further regional destabilization, and balance the region’s competing interests between the United States and China.

Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Qatar as part of a regional tour that focused on Middle East security and COVID-19 recovery. The visit coincided with the United States’ exodus from Afghanistan and the resulting uncertainty about Washington’s decade-long commitments in the Persian Gulf and broader involvement in regional geopolitics.

Back in Tokyo, just a year after taking power, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga joins the ranks of the Japanese revolving door prime ministers. But although Suga’s tenure was short and troubled, his administration continued to lay the vital strategic foundations of his predecessor Shinzo Abe, whose eight-year tenure saw Japan transform into a prominent administrator of the liberal international order. With Japan’s current weakening economy and the setbacks in the COVID-19 recovery after the Tokyo Olympics, Suga’s potential successors will be around the corner.

But as a highly networked middle power that is active in key areas of the Middle East, Tokyo has the opportunity to open a multilateral strategic dialogue with the region that will focus on the critical issues of the next few decades – namely digital transformation and technological competition. Such a dialogue would help the Middle East adapt to Washington’s reorientation towards Afghanistan, mitigate the risk of further regional destabilization, and balance the region’s competing interests between the United States and China.

Former Japanese Foreign and Defense Minister Taro Kono, a leading candidate to succeed Suga, played a major role in Japanese efforts to mediate US-Iran tensions following the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Abe’s longtime Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, another potential successor, is also a sidekick in the Middle East. Most recently, as chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, Kishida played a significant role behind the scenes in Tokyo’s efforts to protect the nuclear deal with Iran during the years of former US President Donald Trump. Even Abe’s preferred replacement for Suga, former Japanese Interior Minister Sanae Takaichi, who is less experienced in foreign affairs, might be expected to be faithful to Abe’s security doctrine of “proactive pacifism” in the Middle East.

Japan has an important advantage as a bridge builder and convener in the Middle East. Although Japan has close ties with NATO and has been a logistical cornerstone of other US-led wars such as Korea and Vietnam, Japan played a limited role in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Japan is thus one of the few US allies that has emerged from the last decades of intervention in the region with an intact reputation. Japan’s popularity can be attributed in no small part to the sustained post-war foreign policy consensus of “buck-passing” pacifism, which was only recently abandoned in favor of a more proactive security role in the world, what Tokyo’s bona fides as an “honest broker” and what set it apart from other US allies in the Middle East.

On the Tokyo side, the Middle East is a subsequent region for Japan and its trading partners in Asia due to its long-term energy dependence on the Arabian Gulf and the supply of the surrounding countries with oil reserves. Since the Carter administration, Washington has committed itself to the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the West and its allies – above all: Tokyo. Japan’s main oil suppliers remain Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

Today, however, Japanese policymakers should be prepared for a possible erosion of Washington’s willingness or ability to protect the strategically critical oil shipping routes that traverse the 3,200-mile-long sea zone from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca. Although the U.S. Navy has maintained a fast pace of freedom of navigation operations in the Indo-Pacific, it may have difficulty maintaining that engagement in multiple regions. Observers, therefore, on Motegi’s tour – and Japan’s impending diplomacy in the Middle East – can look back as a major milestone in Tokyo’s ongoing efforts to define a new global role for itself beyond the Indo-Pacific.

In recent years, regional capitals from Muscat, Oman, near the Arabian Gulf to Rabat along the Atlantic coast of Morocco, have struggled to steer the new Cold War between Washington and Beijing. The United States remains the primary security guarantor for the Persian Gulf states, as well as an important military partner for large North African economies such as Egypt and Morocco. But China has not only become the most important oil export destination of the Persian Gulf region, but also the most important trading partner of most of the nations in the Middle East. The recent events in Afghanistan, meanwhile, have re-raised the question of US long-term containment. But it is still questionable whether China will be ready to step in and take on greater responsibility for security in the Middle East, similar to the protective role Washington has played in the Persian Gulf since the 1980s and, correspondingly, Beijing’s currently larger economic stake on the region.

There is therefore an urgent need for a new multilateral architecture, possibly with outside support. During Motegi’s visit to the Middle East last month, the Japanese Foreign Minister urged Iran to ease geopolitical tensions and reaffirmed Tokyo’s support for regional counter-terrorism efforts. The Baghdad summit at the end of August was an early effort by various regional actors and France, whose head of state was present, to prepare a Middle East after Washington; The Biden government has promised to leave Iraq by the end of 2021, which opens the door to another power vacuum in the region.

In addition to France, India is also building strategic partnerships with Israel and the United Arab Emirates and is deepening its bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and Greece. Given that Japan, France and India are each main proponents of the free and open Indo-Pacific construct, the long-term viability of which depends in part on the continued economic growth of the Persian Gulf, the three countries play a natural role in the midst of the future stability of the East.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the United States, which will be active again from 2017, could be a model for this proposed strategic grouping. To avoid the mistakes of its first incarnation, which ended in 2008, Quad 2.0 organized three working groups devoted to vaccine distribution, climate change mitigation, and critical and emerging technologies. The resuscitated quad’s focus on specific common concerns, rather than a comprehensive framework, was critical to its development as a credible bulwark for regional security and prosperity. This so-called minilateral or topic-specific approach could serve Japan well in its engagement in the Middle East. It could build on Tokyo’s previous efforts elsewhere, including the use of 5G, quality infrastructure, and cybersecurity collaboration, and cleverly use these initiatives as a springboard to a larger coordination mechanism. Given Japan’s positive reputation in the Middle East, a regional dialogue organized by Tokyo certainly has the potential to address a broader area of ​​security issues than it would in a US-led framework that is closely related to Iran’s nuclear program and the promotion of democracy and human rights focused, appears realistic.

Tokyo could be particularly suited to helping the Middle East manage tensions surrounding the 5G rollout. The Persian Gulf, Egypt and Morocco countries have each argued over whether to follow in Washington’s footsteps by banning Huawei or ZTE devices from their 5G networks. While China remains their largest trading partner and source of foreign investment, these countries, and ultimately others in the region, must grapple with the national security and privacy impacts of Beijing’s current monopoly on the 5G network industry.

However, concerns in the Middle East over China’s closed network architecture are creating new synergies with Japan, whose government and industry are leaders in developing disaggregated, virtualized and interoperable network solutions. A joint commitment announced in July by five major Middle Eastern cellular operators to deploy open RAN technologies could give Tokyo just the momentum it needs to form a regional 5G working group that complements other multilateral efforts to bring Huawei, the Chinese company that often as an arm of the state. Japanese Open RAN developers already in the region, such as Rakuten, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, and NEC, would play a crucial role in this.

During this next phase of its engagement in the Middle East, Japan has a direct interest in – and is uniquely suited to – helping the region adapt to its changing geopolitical landscape. Multilateral, thematic working groups, such as one too open RAN technologies, could facilitate a broader transregional strategic dialogue that leverages the Middle East’s access to capital along with the innovative potential of the Indo-Pacific to usher in a new era of stability and prosperity.

Related Articles