Rising Sun in the Middle East: Japan’s Growing Global Engagement


Shinzo Abe Yad Vashem

By Ben Tannenbaum

(Photograph of Shinzo Abe by the Asahi Shmbun, courtesy of Getty Images)

After two of its citizens were brutally beheaded in the Middle East, it seems logical that Japan would shy from involvement in the region. However, as the scars of the Second World War fade deeper into the past, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to develop an increased global presence. Japan’s emergence from its isolationist cocoon will have an impact in the Middle East. Japan relies on Arabian oil and has also sought to flex its muscles in the counter-terror realm. An active Japanese presence in the Middle East would help America’s regional goals, but may also become a political distraction.

Like most developed countries, Japan’s economy heavily depends on oil. Japan imports more petroleum than any nation besides China and the U.S. The 2011 Fukushima disaster made nuclear energy unpopular in Japan, increasing oil’s importance. Yet without America’s capacity for domestic oil production, Japan relies on Middle Eastern fuel even more than we do. As a result, Japan has expanded its trading ties with the region. Nearly a third of Japan’s oil comes from Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar also have significant trade with Japan. These economic connections have led to an increased diplomatic presence in the Middle East.

During Abe’s current premiership, Japan has enhanced its counter-terror profile in the region. In the first year of his term, Abe exchanged trips with Saudi diplomats. Despite the awkward photo-ops with Prince Salman, the two nations reached standard agreements on trade and investment. More surprisingly, they also signed a joint security pact regarded as a “paradigm shift” for Japanese-Saudi relations. This past month Abe returned to the Middle East, visiting countries (Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon) that have very little trade with Japan. Abe’s decision to visit such countries indicates that he had an agenda well beyond his country’s commercial needs. Japan presented itself as a strong political partner. Even since the executions of two Japanese citizens, Abe has publicly maintained his strong commitment to assist counter-terror in the Middle East. The ISIS executions have not dampened Abe’s resolve to play an active role in the region.

Focused narrowly on the Middle East, an increased Japanese presence would benefit the United States. America has a less ambiguous relationship with Japan than with its Middle Eastern allies. While the U.S. often quibbles with local partners like the Saudis and Egyptians, Japan has no ulterior agenda in the region. Japan’s relatively low amount of trade with Iran (just 5% of Japanese oil imports) represents a lone minor divergence in interests. In fact, some analysts feel that Japan’s Middle East policy strives mainly to bolster ties with the U.S.

However, a robust Japanese presence in the Middle East could hinder America’s global strategic goals. Despite Abe’s recent electoral reaffirmation, the Japanese public has a limited appetite for re-assertive foreign policy. Facing a recession, many Japanese voters oppose foreign engagement. The government faces an uphill battle to amend the constitutional restrictions on military action. If Abe spends his political capital in the Middle East, he may actually have less leeway to act closer to home. Standing up to China in the Pacific remains Japan’s priority- for them, the Middle East is just a sideshow. America should discourage any Japanese posturing in the desert that hinders support for the still nascent “pivot to Asia.”

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